Navigating Israeli Restrictions, Many Palestinians Find It Hard to Reach Al Aqsa

Navigating Israeli Restrictions, Many Palestinians Find It Hard to Reach Al Aqsa

As the sermon about the Muslim holy month of Ramadan sounded over the speakers from Al Aqsa Mosque, 13-year-old Yousef al-Sideeq sat on a bench outside the compound’s gates.

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

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

He has managed to get in only twice.

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

As Ramadan begins, many also fear what, if any, additional constraints Israel may impose on the religious site, which can draw 200,000 people in one day from not just Jerusalem but the Israeli-occupied West Bank and Israel as a whole.

The Israeli police said that people were “entering after enhanced security checks that are conducted due to the current reality, alongside efforts to prevent any disturbances.” But they did not answer specific questions about whether there was a policy preventing certain worshipers, especially young men, from entering the mosque on Friday.

They said they were “maintaining a balance between the freedom of worship and the imperative of ensuring security.”

Late on Sunday, Palestinian and Israeli news media reported that police officers prevented many Palestinians from entering Al Aqsa to perform prayers for the start of Ramadan. Both media cited a video that showed officers with batons chasing and beating some Palestinians.

Israel has said there has been no change to the status quo, which allows only Muslims to worship 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 Al Aqsa Mosque and other important Islamic prayer spaces. The compound includes the Dome of the Rock, a gold-domed prayer hall.

Israel captured East Jerusalem, including the Old City and the Aqsa compound, from Jordan in 1967 and later 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 Al Aqsa compound has become increasingly restricted in favor of Jews, who consider the Temple Mount the most sacred place in Judaism.

Incidents at the compound have at times been the spark for broader conflicts. The second intifada, or Palestinian uprising, was set off in 2000 when Ariel Sharon, who later became Israel’s prime minister, visited Al Aqsa surrounded by hundreds of police officers. Confrontations at the compound in May 2021 contributed to the outbreak of an 11-day war between Israel and Hamas.

Hamas, the Palestinian armed group which has been in control of Gaza for years, called its Oct. 7 attack on southern Israel Al Aqsa Flood, saying it was in part a response to “Judaization plans” at the mosque.

The attack killed about 1,200 people, and some 200 people were taken hostage, according to the Israeli authorities. Israel’s assault on Gaza in its war against Hamas has killed more than 30,000 Palestinians, according to Gazan health officials.

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

Some of the most provocative episodes have been raids into the Aqsa compound by baton-wielding police forces firing tear gas and sponge-tipped bullets who have clashed with Palestinians throwing stones and setting off fireworks.

“Al Aqsa Flood came as a response to the settlers’ violations against Al Aqsa,” said Walid Kilani, a Hamas spokesman in Lebanon, referring to Jewish worshipers.

Israeli police officers “stormed the mosque and insulted the Muslim prayers there,” he added. “We had to retaliate, as Al Aqsa is our holy site and is mentioned in the Quran.”

In the initial weeks of the war, only Muslims ages 60 and older were allowed in, said Mohammad al-Ashhab, a spokesman for the Waqf — an Islamic trust that administers the mosque and that is financed and overseen by Jordan.

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

Though the situation has improved since then, he said, many Muslims are still prevented from attending.

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

Last week, the government of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said it had decided against putting new restrictions on Al Aqsa during Ramadan and would allow a similar number of worshipers as in previous years.

In addition to longstanding Israeli restrictions on Muslims coming from the occupied West Bank, Itamar Ben-Gvir, the far-right national security minister, had called on the government to impose limits this year on Palestinian citizens of Israel.

Still, the ambiguous language of the Israeli government’s decision has some concerned. Human rights groups fear that freedom of worship could be curtailed under the guise of security and safety.

“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,” Ir Amim, an Israeli rights group that focuses on Jerusalem, said in a statement following the decision. “This in turn may lead to a decision to ultimately apply collective entry restrictions during Ramadan.”

“Our freedom of worship has gone backwards,” Mr. al-Ashhab said.

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

AbdulAziz Sbeitan, 30, was rushing through a Muslim cemetery on the edge of the Old City, having been turned away from Lion’s Gate, one of seven entrances to the historic district. He was on the phone with friends who were trying to enter from other gates.

The Jerusalem native has always attended Friday Prayer at Al Aqsa, but since Oct. 7 he hasn’t been able to get in once. Each Friday he tries multiple gates.

Sometimes he accompanies an older woman or young girls in an effort to get through, but each time the police have pushed him back, he said.

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

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

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

“Come, let’s try another gate,” one said to his friend.

“Guys, we tried all the gates, they won’t let you in,” another man told them. “They let us in once, and then once we were inside the gate they pushed us back out.”

He said the Israeli police told him that young men were not allowed to enter. Like many others, the man, a 28-year-old Jerusalemite, didn’t want to give his name for fear of retribution by the police.

It wasn’t just young single men being barred. Fathers with little children and some women were turned away as well.

“It’s all according to their whims,” one woman said as she walked away after being prevented from entering through Lion’s Gate.

As the call to prayer sounded inside Al Aqsa, Yousef, the 13-year-old, joined an impromptu gathering of dozens of young men who couldn’t get in.

In past weeks those prevented from praying inside Al Aqsa would gather in the streets and conduct their own sermon and prayer. But on Friday it seemed even harder as the Israeli police shoved them away from Lion’s Gate and farther outside the walls of the Old City.

Undeterred, one man began the call to prayer, at times barely audible over the sound of sirens and horns along the street, buses trundling past and the police shouting.

Soon, another man stepped on top of a sidewalk stone barrier and began to give an off-the-cuff sermon.

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

As he finished, more heavily armed police officers piled out of two vehicles.

The man appeared unfazed. He then led dozens — mostly teenagers and men in their 20s and 30s — in prayer on a crowded Jerusalem sidewalk surrounded by two churches and the Tomb of the Virgin. The gold Dome of the Rock, the center of the Aqsa compound, was barely visible over the Old City walls.

Abu Bakr Bashir contributed reporting from London.

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