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Tens of thousands protest after Muslim prayers across Mideast over Israeli airstrikes on Gaza

JERUSALEM (AP) — Tens of thousands of Muslims demonstrated Friday across the Middle East in support of the Palestinians and against the intensifying Israeli bombardment of Gaza, underscoring the risk of a wider regional conflict as Israel prepares for a possible ground invasion.

From the typically sedate streets of downtown Amman in Jordan, to Yemen’s war-scarred capital of Sanaa, crowds of Muslim worshippers poured into the streets after weekly Friday prayers, angered by devastating Israeli airstrikes on Gaza that began after the militant group Hamas launched an unprecedented surprise attack on Israel last Saturday.

At the Al-Aqsa Mosque in Jerusalem’s Old City, Israeli police were permitting only certain older men, women and children to enter the sprawling hilltop compound for prayers, trying to limit the potential for violence. Only 5,000 worshippers made it into the site, the Islamic endowment that manages the mosque said. On a typical Friday, some 50,000 perform the prayers.

An Associated Press reporter watched police allow just a Palestinian teenage girl and her mother into the compound out of 20 worshippers who tried to get in, some of them even over the age of 50. Young Palestinian men who were refused entry gathered at the steps near Lion’s Gate, eyes downcast, until police shouted at them and shepherded them outside the Old City ramparts altogether.

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“We can’t live, we can’t breathe, they are killing everything that is good within us,” said Ahmad Barbour, a 57-year-old cleaner, red-faced and seething after police blocked him from entering for prayers.

“Everything that is forbidden to us is allowed to them,” he added, referring to the Israelis.

The mosque sits in a hilltop compound sacred to both Jews and Muslims, and conflicting claims over it have spilled into violence before. Al-Aqsa Mosque is the third-holiest site in Islam and stands in a spot known to Jews as the Temple Mount, which is the holiest site in Judaism.

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Hundreds of young Palestinian worshippers who had been turned away from the Old City threw down small prayer rugs on the street in the east Jerusalem neighborhood of Wadi Joz and prayed in the open. When some of the men started shouting, Israeli police charged into the crowd with batons and fired rounds of tear gas at the worshippers, wounding at least six people, said the Palestinian Red Crescent.

Thousands demonstrated in Amman in neighboring Jordan, some crying out: “We are going to Jerusalem as millions of martyrs!”

“What do they want from Palestine? Do they expect them to leave?” asked protester Omar Abu-Sundos. “For what remains of Palestine to leave? They won’t leave.”

In Beirut, thousands of supporters of Lebanon’s Hezbollah militant group waved Lebanese, Palestinian and Hezbollah flags, chanting slogans in support of Gaza and calling for “death to Israel.” The Iranian-backed militant group in neighboring Lebanon has launched sporadic attacks since the Hamas assault, but largely stayed on the sidelines of the war.

However, Hezbollah’s deputy secretary-general warned that it would be “on the lookout” for the United States and British naval vessels heading to the Mediterranean Sea. U.S. officials, including President Joe Biden, have repeatedly warned Iran and the regional militias Tehran backs to stay out of the conflict between Israel and Hamas.

“Your battleships do not interest us, nor do your statements frighten us,” Naim Kassim said at a rally in a southern suburb of Beirut. “When the time is right to take action, we will do so.”

In Baghdad, tens of thousands of protesters gathered in Tahrir Square — the protest hub of Iraq’s capital — for rallies called by the influential Shiite cleric and political leader Muqtada al-Sadr.

“We, as Iraqis, know the pain of having an occupier on our land,” said protester Alaa al-Arabyia, referring to the U.S. occupation of Iraq following its 2003 invasion to topple Saddam Hussein. “Palestinian women have husbands, loved ones and sons fighting the occupation. We stand with them in their struggle.”

Across Iran, a supporter of Hamas and Israel’s regional archenemy, demonstrators also streamed into the streets after prayers. In Tehran, they burned Israeli and American flags, chanting: “Death to Israel,” “Death to America,” “Israel will be doomed,” and “Palestine will be the conqueror.”

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“The Palestinian people are fed up, now your idea is to destroy Gaza, the houses of the people,” Iran’s hard-line President Ebrahim Raisi said in a speech in the country’s southern Fars province. “The people of the world and Palestine will cause trouble for you.”

In the Syrian capital of Damascus, protesters — including Palestinians from the Yarmouk refugee camp formed after the 1948 war surrounding Israel’s creation — also rallied.

“I tell the people not to leave their homes otherwise they will be like our grandparents who left Palestine and came to Syria but never returned,” Ahmad Saeed, a 23-year-old Palestinian living in Syria, said, referring to the 1948 war.

In Yemen’s Sanaa, held by the Iranian-backed Houthi rebels still at war with a Saudi-led coalition, demonstrators crowded the streets waving Yemeni and Palestinian flags. The rebels’ slogan long has been: “God is the greatest; death to America; death to Israel; curse of the Jews; victory to Islam.”

“We are ready to participate actively and send hundreds of thousands of mujahedeen … .to defend Palestine, the Palestinian people and the holy sites,” the Houthi government said in a statement Friday.

After Friday prayers, Egyptian demonstrators ringed the historic Al-Azhar Mosque in downtown Cairo, the Sunni Muslim world’s foremost religious institution, chanting that Israel remained their enemy “generation after generation.” They repeated the traditionally nationalistic slogan, “We give our souls and blood to Al-Aqsa.”

In Pakistan’s capital of Islamabad, some worshippers trampled on American and Israeli flags.

“International media and international courts turn a blind eye to the injustices with the Palestinians. But they only notice the actions that the Palestinians take to defend themselves,” said Faheem Ahmed, a worshipper in Karachi. “They call it terrorism.”

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Associated Press writers Abdulrahman Zeyad in Baghdad; Kareem Chehayeb in Beirut; Amir Vahdat in Tehran, Iran; Albert Aji in Damascus, Syria; and Munir Ahmed in Islamabad contributed to this report.