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As Ramadan begins, uncertainty and anxiety surround the Al-Aqsa mosque

Muslims walk next to the Dome of Rock Mosque at the Al-Aqsa Mosque compound in Jerusalem's Old City, Sunday, March 10, 2024.
Mahmoud Illean
Muslims walk next to the Dome of Rock Mosque at the Al-Aqsa Mosque compound in Jerusalem's Old City, Sunday, March 10, 2024.

JERUSALEM – The Muslim holy month of Ramadan arrived Monday with no news of a cease-fire in Gaza, raising further concerns about tensions spreading to Jerusalem, where the Al-Aqsa mosque sits at the very center of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

On Sunday, Israeli police denied entry to many Palestinian men for the first night of Ramadan prayers. At one gate, police charged at the crowd back and hit people with batons.

Since the Oct. 7 attack by Hamas, Israel has restricted Palestinian access to Al-Aqsa. Men and teenage boys under the age of 45, and Palestinians living in the occupied West Bank have not been allowed for months. Some have been praying outside the walls of the old city.

Last week, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's office said Israel would allow access to Al-Aqsa as it had in previous years – when nearly everyone was allowed – at least for the first week. Each following week during the month-long holiday would be assessed afterward, Netanyahu's office said, overruling the far-right minister of national security Itamar Ben-Gvir, who advocated for a near blanket ban, including on Muslims with Israeli citizenship.

The Jerusalem district command for the Israel police did not respond to NPR's request for comment.

The compound, which Muslims refer to as Al Haram Al Sharif, is made up of the iconic Dome of The Rock, the Al-Aqsa mosque – with the smaller gray dome, museums and other institutions – and is on a site that is holy to both Muslims and Jews, who know it as the Temple Mount, where the ancient temple stood 2,000 years ago.

As part of a longstanding agreement aimed at maintaining religious balance since Israel captured the old city from Jordan in 1967, Muslims pray at Al-Aqsa, while Jews pray at the Western Wall, the base of the ancient second temple. But a growing movement of ultra-Orthodox and ultra-nationalist Jews have been going to the compound to pray, accompanied by Israeli police. A small but increasingly vocal group talks about building the third temple where the Dome of the Rock currently stands.

Daniel Seidemann, an Israeli attorney and expert on Jerusalem, said the role of Israeli police has changed from what it was 10 years ago, when they were largely seen as a moderating influence.

"The police were something of a referee between all sides, and their goal was to maintain order. They are now in league with the Temple Mount movement," Seidemann said. "On a daily basis Israel violates the status quo by any interpretation."

Palestinians fear losing the right to worship at Al-Aqsa

In recent years, as the Israeli government has leaned further right, there has been a steady shrinking of Palestinian spaces.

Friday prayers at the site usually have a festive atmosphere, attracting around 50,000 people, most come dressed in their best clothes and linger after prayers. But on the Friday before Ramadan began, Israeli police heavily restricted entry for worshippers. There was also an unusually large police presence close to the worshiping sites, where normally, they would be positioned further away. All of this has heightened anxiety and fear among Palestinians that they will be barred from exercising their right to worship.

18-year-old Rushdiyyah, who lives in Jerusalem and spoke to NPR on the condition of not using her full name, fearing Israeli police, said she had never seen the mosque so empty, especially for pre-Ramadan Friday prayers.

"It's really distressing. This is our mosque, we have a right to be here," adding that she will come every day of the month.

With the diminishing hope for a future Palestinian state, the rise of settlements in the occupied West Bank and increasing limitations on Palestinian movement, many, especially Palestinian youth, have come to see Al-Aqsa as the very last site to defend.

"This is what is left for the Palestinian as a kind of identity," said Zakariya Al Qaq, a Palestinian national security expert. "And this is very important. They feel that it is under threat. And if they lose it or something happens to Al-Aqsa mosque, then everything is lost."

Hamas often invokes Al-Aqsa in order to galvanize support or incite an uprising. The group named the Oct. 7 attack, in which 1200 people were killed and dozens taken hostage, "Al-Aqsa flood" citing threats to the mosque as the reason.

A fuse for the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, Al-Aqsa sensitivity increases during Ramadan

Ramadan is the ninth month in the Islamic lunar calendar and for Muslims around the world, it's a month of spiritual reflection, charity, prayers and abstinence from food and drink during daylight hours.

"We consider Ramadan to be the month of Al Quds (Jerusalem), it's the month of Al-Aqsa mosque, and we have been preparing to welcome as many worshippers as we can," said Omar Al-Kiswani, the director of Al-Aqsa.

There are several Ramadan-specific activities that take place at the compound, including the breaking of the fast, lectures and nightly prayers. Fridays and other days that are considered especially holy can attract over 200,000 worshippers.

Those activities will still take place, but for many Palestinians the celebrations of the holy month are overshadowed by the war in Gaza. Normally, the mosque area is decorated with lights and lanterns, but not this year.

In recent years, Israeli police raids on Al-Aqsa during Ramadan have offended Muslims worldwide. Videos of Israeli police charging into the mosque and firing tear gas and rubber bullets, as they were chasing protesters who were throwing stones, often go viral on social media. In 2021, the 11-day war between Hamas and Israel in Gaza was partly sparked by outrage over the mosque raids.

Now, at a time when the region is already on edge over the war in Gaza, and with more than 31,000 Palestinians killed, experts warn the slightest tension over the mosque could have the power to engulf the whole region in a bigger war, possibly even a religious one.

"A perceived threat to Al-Aqsa at this moment would be playing with fire," Al Qaq said.

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