In East Jerusalem, hopes for a calm Ramadan mix with fears of Al-Aqsa restrictions

Islamic holy month already marred by high death toll in Gaza war, and residents worry potential curbs on access to holy compound will lead to unrest in Palestinian parts of city

Gianluca Pacchiani is the Arab affairs reporter for The Times of Israel

People sit together to break their Ramadan fast at the end of the last day of the Muslim holy month and the start of the holiday of Eid al-fitr, near the Dome of the Rock shrine at the Aqsa Mosque compound on the Temple Mount in the Old City of Jerusalem on April 20, 2023. (Ahmad Gharabli/AFP)
People sit together to break their Ramadan fast at the end of the last day of the Muslim holy month and the start of the holiday of Eid al-fitr, near the Dome of the Rock shrine at the Aqsa Mosque compound on the Temple Mount in the Old City of Jerusalem on April 20, 2023. (Ahmad Gharabli/AFP)

As the Muslim holy month of Ramadan approaches, Arab residents of East Jerusalem are in the grip of uncertainty, concerned about possible restrictions on access to the Al-Aqsa Mosque as well as the possibility of clashes between young worshipers and security forces, especially if they are denied access.

The month of fasting and prayer is expected to begin on March 10, if on that day a new moon is sighted. In the days leading up to the holiday, whose starting date slides back about 10 days every year, the alleys in the Muslim quarter of the Old City and the streets of East Jerusalem would typically be festooned with colorful lanterns and neon crescent moons, preparing to welcome the throngs spending their nights outdoors after the evening iftar meal to break the fast.

This year, however, Jerusalem’s streets are bare and few seem in the mood for festivities.

“With over 30,000 martyrs in Gaza, how can we celebrate?” said Fathi, a souvenir shop owner in the Old City of Jerusalem. Ramadan will be marked, he says, but Jerusalem’s Muslims “will only observe the religious commandments of the holy month.”

He compares the uncertainty over how this year’s Ramadan will go to purchasing a watermelon. “Until you open it, you cannot know if it’s red or white on the inside,” he said. “This is how we are feeling these days.”

With religious fervor heightened, the Ramadan period is almost always one of increased tensions. This year, with the war raging in Gaza ratcheting up Muslim anger against Israel, and hardliners at the helm in Jerusalem, many are concerned that the holiday could prove combustible, especially in East Jerusalem.

As has often been the case, tensions during Ramadan center around the Temple Mount, known to Muslims as the Haram al-Sharif or Holy Sanctuary. During Ramadan, hundreds of thousands of Muslims gather there to pray on the large plaza in front of the Al-Aqsa Mosque, the third-holiest site in Islam.

Palestinian Hamas supporters chant slogans and flash gestures with flags of the terror group outside the Dome of the Rock shrine at the Temple Mount compound in the Old City of Jerusalem during Ramadan on April 7, 2023. (Ahmad Gharabli/AFP)

The compound is the holiest place in Judaism, where the two biblical Temples once stood, and is a central flashpoint of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Violent clashes between worshipers and the police there are not rare.

Many residents of East Jerusalem say that since October 7, Israeli security forces have heavily restricted Muslims’ access to Al-Aqsa.

Police have not admitted to placing any restrictions on access to the site, and did not respond to several requests for comment. However, locals attest that access is often denied, and lament that there do not seem to be any clear criteria for who is barred.

“Soldiers allow people to pass randomly, deciding based on their face,” said Abu Kareem, the owner of a juice shop in the Old City. He said his 30-year-old daughter was recently denied access to the compound.

“Sometimes they only allow in people above 50, sometimes above 60. Some worshipers drive 200 kilometers to come here, some fly in from abroad, and when they go up to the gate to Al-Aqsa, they are denied access,” said Abu Kareem, who, like others in the Old City, did not offer his full name.

Abu Kareem expressed concern that restrictions will get worse during Ramadan.

Abu Kareem, owner of a juice shop in the Muslim quarter of the Old City of Jerusalem, March 2, 2024. (Gianluca Pacchiani/Times of Israel)

During the ongoing war in Gaza, which began after Hamas-led terrorists slaughtered 1,200 people in southern Israel on October 7, the atmosphere on the Palestinian street has been combustive, particularly in the West Bank. But East Jerusalem has largely remained free of major violent incidents, though on Wednesday a teen boy from the Palestinian neighborhood of Kafr Aqeb was arrested after allegedly stabbing a man in a terror attack in the Jewish East Jerusalem neighborhood of Neve Yaakov.

A day earlier, the Prime Minister’s Office announced that Israel would stick to policies used in years past for securing the Temple Mount during Ramadan, after National Security Minister Itamar Ben Gvir had sought to impose tighter restrictions, and reportedly even pushed for banning some Israeli Muslims under a certain age, an unprecedented measure that would likely have falled afoul of the law and courts.

While overruling Ben Gvir, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s office nonetheless left the door open for restrictions to be put in place, saying a “situational assessment around security and safety” would be made every week and “a decision will be made accordingly.”

Shoppers at a store selling Ramadan decorations in East Jerusalem, March 3, 2024. (Gianluca Pacchiani/Times of Israel)

“Ramadan is holy for Muslims, and the sanctity of the holiday will be preserved this year, as it is every year,” Netanyahu’s office pledged.

Fearing that limitations could stir unrest, senior officials, including Defense Minister Yoav Gallant, IDF chief Herzi Halevi, and Shin Bet chief Ronen Bar, have urged maximal freedom of access for Muslim worshipers to pray at Al-Aqsa, according to reports. Attempts to restrict Muslim access to the holy site, especially during holidays, have sparked clashes in the past, and officials have cited the relative quiet in East Jerusalem as a reason to not curb access and risk unrest.

Alaa, a local resident, predicted that clashes that could erupt due to potential curbs would take place not on the Temple Mount itself, where police presence will be heavy, but outside the walls of the Old City, most likely near Damascus Gate. The Old City gate is one of the main points of access to the Muslim quarter and is normally a lively gathering place during Ramadan.

It has also been a flashpoint for unrest among young Palestinians and clashes with the police in past years.

A spice shop decorated with colorful hanging Ramadan lanterns in the Old City of Jerusalem ahead of the Muslim holy month, March 3, 2024. (Gianluca Pacchiani/Times of Israel)

Muhammad, a receptionist at the Hashimi Hotel, one of the main accommodation facilities for Muslim pilgrims, said that despite the ongoing war, the hotel is fully booked for Ramadan, with many guests coming from abroad.

He expressed confidence that access to Al-Aqsa will be granted at least to foreign passport holders, even if not to all local Palestinians, and that the holy month will unfold without tensions.

Few share his sanguine outlook.

Outside the walls of the Old City, a passerby who declined to give his name predicted that with everything going on, Ramadan will not pass quietly in East Jerusalem.

“Confrontations will be inevitable,” he said.

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