Jerusalem Al-Aqsa mosque to remain open despite COVID-19 surge

Jerusalem’s Al-Aqsa mosque compound will stay open despite spike in coronavirus cases. (File/Reuters)
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Updated 16 September 2020

Jerusalem Al-Aqsa mosque to remain open despite COVID-19 surge

  • Islamic Endowments Department says it fears Israel will allow settlers to storm the site if it closes to worshippers
  • Earlier reports said Islam's third holiest site would be closed as coronavirus cases rise

CAIRO: The authority overseeing Jerusalem’s Al-Aqsa mosque compound has decided not to close the site amid a spike in COVID-19 cases.
The Islamic Endowments Department initially decided to “suspend the entry of worshippers starting from Friday afternoon” for three weeks” given that the coronavirus was spreading in Israel and the occupied Palestinian territories.
But the authority said the decision was taken to keep Islam’s third holiest open after it realized Israel would allow settlers to storm the mosque if it were closed.
“We decided to keep the doors of the blessed Al-Aqsa Mosque open,” the statement said.
It said the mosque would remain open and prayers held as normal. 
The authority said the decision to suspend worshippers from entering Al-Aqsa depended on Israel not allowing hardliners to storm it.
The statement comes amid a three-week lockdown to be imposed by Israel, which controls the entrances of the compound.
Jordan is the custodian of the compound, known by Muslims as the Haram Al-Sharif, or Holy Sanctuary, and as the Temple Mount by Jews.
It is only the second time that the Islamic Endowments Department has decided to close the compound since Israel occupied east Jerusalem in the Six-Day War of 1967.
Israel has previously blocked access to the site, which is a focus of Palestinian aspirations for statehood.
The compound was closed at the onset of the pandemic in March, when sweeping closures upended religious life in a way not seen for centuries.
Israeli authorities have reported nearly 167,000 coronavirus cases, with 1,147 deaths.
In the occupied West Bank some 214 people have died from the virus and more than 30,200 cases have been registered by Palestinian authorities.

*With AFP

Revealed: How Iran smuggles weapons to the Houthis

Updated 2 min 25 sec ago

Revealed: How Iran smuggles weapons to the Houthis

  • Captured gang tells of route to Yemen through base in Somalia

AL-MUKALLA, Yemen: A captured gang of arms smugglers has revealed how Iran supplies weapons to Houthi militias in Yemen through a base in Somalia.

The Houthis exploit poverty in Yemen to recruit fishermen as weapons smugglers, and send fighters to Iran for military training under cover of “humanitarian” flights from Yemen to Oman, the gang said.

The four smugglers have been interrogated since May, when they were arrested with a cache of weapons in Bab Al-Mandab, the strategic strait joining the Red Sea to the Gulf of Aden.

In video footage broadcast on Yemeni TV, gang leader Alwan Fotaini, a fisherman from Hodeidah, admits he was recruited by the Houthis in 2015. His recruiter, a smuggler called Ahmed Halas, told him he and other fishermen would be based in the Somali coastal city of Berbera, from where they would transport weapons and fuel to the Houthis. 

In late 2015, Fotaini traveled to Sanaa and met a Houthi smuggler called Ibrahim Hassam Halwan, known as Abu Khalel, who would be his contact in Iran. 

This is a complex network that requires constant monitoring, hence the focus on maritime security.

Dr. Theodore Karasik, Security analyst

Pretending to be relatives of wounded fighters, Fotaini, Abu Khalel, and another smuggler called Najeeb Suleiman boarded a humanitarian flight to Oman, and then flew to Iran. They were taken to the port city of Bandar Abbas, where they received training on using GPS, camouflage, steering vessels and maintaining engines.

“We stayed in Bandar Abbas for a month as they were preparing an arms shipment that we would be transporting to Yemen,” Fotaini said.

On Fotaini’s first smuggling mission, his job was to act as a decoy for another boat carrying Iranian weapons to the Houthis. “The plan was for us to call the other boat to change course if anyone intercepted our boat,” he said.

He was then sent to Mahra in Yemen to await new arms shipments. The Houthis sent him data for a location at sea, where he and other smugglers met Abu Khalel with a boat laden with weapons from Iran, which were delivered to the Houthis.

Security analyst Dr. Theodore Karasik said long-standing trade ties between Yemen and Somalia made arms smuggling difficult to stop. “This is a complex network that requires constant monitoring, hence the focus on maritime security,” Karasik, a senior adviser to Gulf State Analytics in Washington, DC, told Arab News.

“The smuggling routes are along traditional lines of communication that intermix with other maritime commerce. The temptation to look the other way is sometimes strong, so sharp attention is required to break these chains.”