Inside story'There's a difference between sympathy and support for Hamas'

Despite Hamas’s hopes and Biden’s fears, Ramadan didn’t spread Gaza war to Jerusalem

Officials say Palestinians weren’t interested in heeding Hamas call to rile up Al-Aqsa, where Ben Gvir was blocked from exerting influence and where Jordan played stabilizing role

Jacob Magid

Jacob Magid is The Times of Israel's US bureau chief

Thousands of Muslim worshipers attend Friday prayers during Ramadan, at the Al-Aqsa compound atop the Temple Mount in Jerusalem's Old City, March 29, 2024. (Jamal Awad/Flash90)
Thousands of Muslim worshipers attend Friday prayers during Ramadan, at the Al-Aqsa compound atop the Temple Mount in Jerusalem's Old City, March 29, 2024. (Jamal Awad/Flash90)

In the days leading up to the holy month of Ramadan, Hamas leader Ismail Haniyeh issued an appeal to Palestinians that set off alarm bells in Washington.

“This is a call to our people in Jerusalem and the West Bank to march to Al-Aqsa on the first day of Ramadan,” Haniyeh said on February 28, apparently determined to give greater meaning to the terror group’s “Operation Al-Aqsa Flood,” the terror group’s name for its October 7 attacks on Israel.

Several days later, United States President Joe Biden told reporters, “There’s got to be a ceasefire, because [if] we get into a circumstance where this [war] continues through Ramadan…, Jerusalem… could [get] very, very dangerous.”

Yet, this week brought a close to one of Jerusalem’s quietest Ramadans in years, even as war raged in Gaza.

Palestinians did flock to Al-Aqsa, certainly, with an average of 100,000 attending each of the four Ramadan Friday services. But they overwhelmingly did so in order to pray peacefully.

There were no scenes of Israeli police bursting into mosques on the Temple Mount compound to subdue rioters barricaded inside, as was the case in recent years, including in the lead-up to the last Gaza war in May 2021.

Government officials and analysts who spoke with The Times of Israel pointed to a series of factors that helped explain why the flashpoint city managed to defy Haniyeh’s hopes and Biden’s fears, including a more limited degree of active Hamas support among Palestinians than originally assumed; the sidelining of far-right National Security Minister Itamar Ben Gvir during Israeli security preparations for the holy month; and cooperation from Jordan, which helped foster calm on the Temple Mount.

Muslim worshippers seen after the last Friday prayers of the holy month of Ramadan, in Jerusalem’s Old City, April 5, 2024. (Chaim Goldberg/Flash90)

Palestinian agency

Danny Seidemann, who heads the Terrestrial Jerusalem research institute, noted that East Jerusalem did not see much violence in the months leading up to Ramadan either, despite what he said were efforts by Hamas and some members of Israel’s hardline government to stir up tensions.

“During this war, we’ve seen Palestinian citizens of Israel voluntarily stay away from the Temple Mount until Ramadan,” Seidemann said, contrasting that with the May 2021 Gaza war, when tens of thousands of Arab Israelis were bussed to East Jerusalem in order to pray at Al-Aqsa and join the Palestinian nationalist scenes on the Temple Mount.

“Jerusalem has been quiet because the Palestinians in East Jerusalem decided they want quiet — that this is not the time,” Seidemann said.

“It’s important to mention their agency, because some are presenting them almost as if they’re objects. If we poke them in the wrong place, they’re going to explode — no,” he asserted.

Israeli troops check the identity cards and permits of Palestinians at a checkpoint in Bethlehem in the West Bank, on route to take part in the first Ramadan Friday noon prayers at Jerusalem’s Al-Aqsa Mosque compound atop the Temple Mount on March 15, 2024. (Hazem Bader/AFP)

The Jerusalem expert acknowledged that “there is a great deal of sympathy with Hamas among Palestinians in East Jerusalem,” but argued there is “very little support, and there’s a difference between the two.”

An Israeli security official made a similar assessment, noting that security alerts were down on both sides of the Green Line during Ramadan.

“Palestinians might identify with Hamas’s struggle — partially because they’ve been shielded from seeing what it did on October 7 by networks like Al Jazeera — but even in the West Bank, where support for Hamas is higher, we haven’t seen Palestinians join the fight because very few want to pay the price those in Gaza are now paying,” the official said, speaking on condition of anonymity.

Sidelining Ben Gvir

Israeli officials also credited the government’s decision-making in the lead-up to Ramadan for the calm month that followed, even if it took some time to get there.

Ben Gvir sparked considerable concern in the leadup to the holy month by calling not just for Palestinians from the West Bank to be barred from visiting the Temple Mount, but for Arab Israelis to be restricted as well.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu initially waffled on whether to heed the far-right minister’s recommendation, with leaks from initial security cabinet meetings indicating that he could do so.

What followed was significant pressures from the Biden administration, which feared Ben Gvir might visit the Temple Mount himself in a move Washington predicted could blow the lid off already-bubbling regional tensions altogether, the Israeli security official said.

Worshippers clash with police during the last Friday prayers of the Muslim holy month of Ramadan, in Jerusalem’s Old City, April 5, 2024. (Chaim Goldberg/Flash90)

While Washington leaned on war cabinet minister Benny Gantz, hoping he’d convince the rest of the forum to rein Ben Gvir in, it was ultimately the pressure from heads of the Israeli security establishment who did the heavy lifting in ensuring that Israel’s Ramadan policies at the Temple Mount were more measured, a US official said.

A senior Israeli official credited significant preparation from the security establishment, which allowed increasing numbers of Temple Mount visitors as each week of Ramadan passed without major incident.

There were a handful of arrests throughout the month, including of several Palestinians who police said had hoisted Hamas flags on the last Friday of the month, but those incidents were dealt with in a swift and targeted manner, the Israeli security official said.

No blanket restrictions on Arab Israelis wound up being imposed, and thousands of Palestinians from the West Bank were granted permits to enter Israel and attend Friday Ramadan prayers at Al-Aqsa, albeit under certain age restrictions.

During the last 10 days of Ramadan, non-Muslim visitors were banned from the Temple Mount. This has been a long-held Israeli policy aimed at limiting tensions at the site during the peak of the Muslim holy month.

Jewish visitors on the Temple Mount, May 18, 2023. (Beyadenu)

But the move wasn’t a given this year during the war, particularly given pushback from Ben Gvir.

Even before the end of Ramadan, the number of Jewish visitors to the Temple Mount was down significantly — with less than 1,500 visitors compared to 4,200 last year, according to the Temple Mount Administration group — though this largely had to do with this year’s Muslim holy month not coinciding with the Passover holiday.

While Jewish visitors have in recent years increasingly been filmed praying at the site in violation of the fragile status quo there, “police held them on a tight leash this year, not allowing even the most minor provocations,” Seidemann, the Jerusalem expert, said, citing testimony from Palestinians at the Temple Mount.

There were allegations of excessive force by police against Palestinians around the Temple Mount on the first night of Ramadan, with reports of officers arbitrarily denying entry to Arab Israelis, which sparked scuffles.

“Had this persisted for another few days, there would have been an outbreak of violence,” Seidemann asserted, suggesting that Ben Gvir, whose ministry oversees the police, had been behind that night’s security preparations.

Earlier this week, Ben Gvir’s ministry was given responsibility over a unit that enforces building regulations, which rights groups warned the hardline lawmaker will use to target Arab communities around the country.

Asked whether the timing of the move was tied to discussions Netanyahu had with Ben Gvir aimed at convincing him to fall in line with Israel’s Ramadan preparations, the Israeli security official did not deny the possibility.

Both Netanyahu and Ben Gvir’s offices did not respond to requests for comment.

National Security Minister Itamar Ben Gvir (left) and Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu meet with the troops who participated in a hostage rescue operation in Gaza on February 12, 2024. (Kobi Gideon/GPO)

An assist from Jordan

Seidemann said another factor in Jerusalem’s relative calm over Ramadan was the sermons from Muslim leaders at the Temple Mount “which were heated, but not incendiary.”

“It’s obviously Jordanian influence on the Waqf,” he asserted, referring to the Amman-backed religious trust that administers the holy site.

The Israeli security official agreed with the assessment, saying Jordan didn’t issue any statements of condemnation against Israel during Ramadan that Jerusalem felt were over the top.

“Jordan has the power to play a stabilizing force, and it chose to do that this time,” the security official said.

The official pointed to the Hashemite kingdom’s growing concerns over Hamas’s influence inside the country, which has been rocked by protests in favor of the terror group in recent weeks.

“They recognize that allowing incitement to violence at the Temple Mount will only provide more fuel to Hamas-backers inside Jordan,” the official said.

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