Thursday, April 25

Despite Israeli restrictions, many Palestinians struggle to reach Al Aqsa

As the sermon on the Muslim holy month of Ramadan blared through the loudspeakers of Al Aqsa Mosque, Yousef al-Sideeq, 13, sat on a bench outside the compound’s gates.

“Most Fridays, they stop me from entering, for no reason,” the young Jerusalem resident said, referring to the Israeli police.

Every Friday, Yousef visits the Old City of Jerusalem to pray at Al Aqsa, the third holiest site for Muslims and part of the complex sacred to the Jewish people, who call it the Temple Mount. But since Hamas’s Oct. 7 attacks and Israel’s bombardment of Gaza, heavily armed Israeli police forces guarding many of the Old City’s gates have prevented him from entering the compound, he said. he declares.

He only managed to enter twice.

Muslim access to the mosque has long been a point of contention, as Israel has exercised tighter control in recent years over the compound, one of many restrictions Palestinians living under decades of Israeli occupation have had to harden.

As Ramadan begins, many also fear possible additional constraints Israel could impose on the religious site, which can attract 200,000 people in one day not only from Jerusalem, but also from the Israeli-occupied West Bank and from Israel in his outfit.

Israeli police said people were “entering after enhanced security checks which are carried out due to the current reality, alongside efforts to prevent any disruption.” But they did not respond to specific questions about whether there was a policy preventing some worshipers, particularly young men, from entering the mosque on Friday.

They said they “maintain a balance between freedom of worship and the imperative to ensure security.”

On Sunday evening, Palestinian and Israeli media reported that police officers prevented many Palestinians from entering Al Aqsa to perform prayers at the start of Ramadan. The two media quoted in the video which showed officers armed with batons pursuing and beating Palestinians.

Israel said there had been no change to the status quo, which only allows Muslims to pray at the compound. The site is revered by Jews as the location of two ancient temples, and by Muslims as the Noble Sanctuary, the compound containing the Al Aqsa Mosque and other important Islamic prayer spaces. The complex includes the Dome of the Rock, a golden-domed prayer hall.

Israel captured East Jerusalem, including the Old City and the Aqsa Complex, from Jordan in 1967 and then annexed it. Much of the world considers it occupied territory and does not recognize Israeli sovereignty over East Jerusalem.

Many Palestinians say their access to the Al Aqsa compound has become increasingly restricted to benefit Jews, who consider the Temple Mount the holiest site in Judaism.

Incidents within the compound have sometimes been the spark for larger conflicts. The second Intifada, or Palestinian uprising, was sparked in 2000 when Ariel Sharon, who would later become Israeli prime minister, visited Al Aqsa surrounded by hundreds of police. Clashes at the compound in May 2021 contributed to the outbreak of an 11-day war between Israel and Hamas.

Hamas, the Palestinian armed group that has controlled Gaza for years, called its October 7 attack on southern Israel Al Aqsa a flood, saying it was partly a response to “Judaization plans.” of the mosque.

The attack killed around 1,200 people and around 200 people were sheltered, according to Israeli authorities. Israel’s assault on Gaza as part of its war against Hamas has killed more than 30,000 Palestinians, according to Gaza health officials.

In recent years, Jewish worshipers have prayed inside the Aqsa complex. The most extremist seek to build a third Jewish temple on the site of the Dome of the Rock.

Some of the most provocative episodes were raids on the Aqsa compound by baton-wielding police forces firing tear gas and sponge-tipped bullets, who were met with Palestinians throwing stones and starting fires. fireworks.

“The floods in Al Aqsa occurred in response to violations committed by settlers against Al Aqsa,” said Walid Kilani, Hamas spokesman in Lebanon, referring to Jewish worshipers.

Israeli police “stormed the mosque and insulted Muslim prayers there,” he added. “We had to fight back, because Al Aqsa is our holy place and is mentioned in the Quran. »

In the first weeks of the war, only Muslims aged 60 and over were allowed to enter, said Mohammad al-Ashhab, a spokesman for the Waqf – an Islamic trust that administers the mosque and is financed and supervised by Jordan.

Attendance at Friday prayers, a Muslim holy day, fell from 50,000 to just 1,000, he said.

Although the situation has improved since then, he added, many Muslims still cannot attend.

Many Palestinians fear for the future of Al Aqsa, especially while Israel’s most right-wing government ever is in power.

Last week, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s government said it had decided not to impose new restrictions on Al Aqsa during Ramadan and would allow similar numbers of worshipers as in previous years.

In addition to long-standing Israeli restrictions on Muslims coming from the occupied West Bank, Itamar Ben-Gvir, the far-right Minister of National Security, had called on the government to impose limits on Palestinian citizens of Israel this year.

Nevertheless, the ambiguous language of the Israeli government’s decision raises some concerns. Human rights groups fear that freedom of worship could be restricted under the guise of security.

“Netanyahu’s statement does not actually guarantee full freedom of access for Muslims to Al Aqsa, but rather conditions it on security and safety needs,” said Ir Amim, an Israeli rights group that focuses on Jerusalem, in a statement following the decision. “This could in turn lead to a decision to eventually apply collective entry restrictions during Ramadan. »

“Our freedom of religion has regressed,” Mr. al-Ashhab said.

To reach the Al Aqsa Mosque compound on Friday, Muslim worshipers had to pass through at least three layers of police barricades, where authorities prevented people from entering, checked their IDs or searched their bags. Many arrived with prayer rugs in hand.

AbdulAziz Sbeitan, 30, was rushing to a Muslim cemetery on the outskirts of the old city after being turned away through the Lion Gate, one of seven entrances to the historic district. He was on the phone with friends who were trying to get in through other doors.

The Jerusalem native has always attended Friday prayers at Al Aqsa, but since October 7, he has not been able to enter even once. Every Friday, he tries several doors.

Sometimes he accompanied an older woman or young girls to try to get through, but each time the police pushed him away, he said.

“This is the house of God and the house of our ancestors,” Mr. Sbeitan said as he walked quickly toward Herod’s Gate. “As Muslims, this is important; “Al Aqsa is for Muslims. »

As he arrived at Herod’s Gate, he saw many young men being turned away, sometimes violently shoved by the police.

Mr. Sbeitan cursed under his breath as he lit a cigarette and watched. Around him, other young men offered him advice and, in some cases, discouragement.

“Come on, let’s try another door,” one of them said to his friend.

“Guys, we’ve tried all the doors, they won’t let you in,” another man told them. “They let us in once, and then once we walked through the door, they pushed us back.”

He said Israeli police told him the young men were not allowed inside. Like many others, the man, a 28-year-old Jerusalemite, did not want to give his name for fear of reprisals from the police.

It wasn’t just young, single men who were excluded. Fathers with young children and some women were also turned away.

“It all depends on their whims,” said one woman as she walked away after being blocked from entering through the Lion Gate.

As the call to prayer rang out inside Al Aqsa, 13-year-old Yousef joined an impromptu gathering of dozens of young men who could not enter.

In recent weeks, those prevented from praying at Al Aqsa were gathering in the streets and leading their own sermon and prayer. But on Friday it seemed even more difficult when Israeli police pushed them away from Lion’s Gate and further outside the walls of the Old City.

Undeterred, one man issued the call to prayer, sometimes barely audible over the sound of sirens and horns in the street, passing buses and shouts of police.

Soon another man stepped on a stone barrier on the sidewalk and began giving a spontaneous sermon.

“Will we not liberate Palestine? said the man, who gave his name only as Yousef, fearing retaliation despite the risk he had already taken in leading a sermon.

As he finished, more heavily armed police emerged from two vehicles.

The man seemed unfazed. He then led dozens of people – mostly teenagers and men in their 20s and 30s – in prayer on a crowded Jerusalem sidewalk, surrounded by two churches and the Virgin’s Tomb. The golden Dome of the Rock, the center of the Aqsa wall, was barely visible over the walls of the old city.

Abu Bakr Bashir contributed reporting from London.