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Israel's Ramadan restrictions at Al-Aqsa could ignite chaos

How Israel's Ramadan restrictions at Al-Aqsa could ignite chaos
6 min read
28 February, 2024
Analysis: Israeli Ramadan restrictions at Al-Aqsa are a premeditated move to provoke wider unrest and create a pretext to expand the conflict, analysts say.

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s office said last week that Israel will impose restrictions on access to Jerusalem’s Al-Aqsa Mosque compound during the Islamic holy month of Ramadan, which will begin around 10 March this year.

The compound, revered by Muslims as Haram al-Sharif and also sacred to Jews who refer to it as the Temple Mount, is the third holiest site in the world for Muslims.

Netanyahu’s office has not yet officially decided what limitations will be set for Muslim worshippers, but the premier’s plans align with a previous call for a ban on Palestinians from accessing Al-Aqsa Mosque during Ramadan by Israeli far-right national security minister Itamar Ben-Gvir.

In reaction to Gvir’s recommendations, the country’s internal security agency Shin Bet warned that restricting Palestinian entry to the Jerusalem holy site in the fasting month could “lead to major disturbances”. Retired Israeli officials made similar warnings, saying that imposing these limits would be highly dangerous.

The controversial access restrictions come at a time when Israel is waging an unprecedented military campaign in Gaza following the 7 October Hamas attacks. So far, over 30,000 Palestinians have been killed, including 12,000 children, while most of the Gaza Strip has been left uninhabitable by heavy Israeli bombardments.

Limiting access to Al-Aqsa Mosque also comes as Netanyahu threatens to go ahead with a ground operation in Rafah, Gaza’s southernmost city, where nearly 1.5 million Palestinians have sought refuge after being forcibly displaced from other areas of the besieged territory.

Israeli war cabinet member Benny Gantz has warned that if the hostages held in Gaza are not released by the start of Ramadan, Tel Aviv will broaden its assault in southern Gaza and launch the planned invasion of Rafah.

There is mounting international pressure on Israel to halt the fighting in the besieged Palestinian territory as mediators have been negotiating a ceasefire agreement before the start of Ramadan.

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There are fears in East Jerusalem that heightened restrictions at al-Aqsa Mosque could trigger widespread unrest at a highly sensitive time.

“Before it takes any steps, Israel usually starts by measuring the pulse of the Palestinians,” Yazan Risheq, executive director of Palestinian non-profit organisation Grassroots Jerusalem, told The New Arab, noting that it would adopt restrictive measures, then add more measures or not depending on how Palestinians react.

“Israeli authorities are going to evaluate the situation before Ramadan and proceed accordingly afterwards.”

The NGO director explained that in the weeks preceding the holy month, young Palestinians who are on Israel’s list for previous security-related offences are typically arrested and prohibited from entering the Al-Aqsa complex or being in its vicinity.

Israeli security forces are carrying out widespread raids and arrests across the West Bank, blocking entrances to Jerusalem for Palestinians ahead of Ramadan. Since it unleashed its military aggression on the Gaza Strip, Israel has also cancelled work permits and restricted travel for West Bank Palestinians.

There are fears in East Jerusalem that heightened restrictions at al-Aqsa Mosque could trigger widespread unrest at a highly sensitive time. [Getty]

Since the beginning of the war in the Gaza Strip tensions have been rising in the West Bank with an escalation in Israeli military raids and attacks by armed Jewish settlers against Palestinians.

Security restrictions have increased too. Israeli police have been limiting Palestinian access to the Al-Aqsa compound, especially on Fridays.

The Israeli government is now reportedly considering barring West Bank Palestinians aged 10-60 from entering the mosque during Ramadan. The restriction of access for Palestinian citizens of Israel is currently under review.

Located in East Jerusalem’s Old City, Al-Aqsa is a highly sensitive religious and nationalist symbol for Palestinians, and the wider Muslim world. After Israel occupied East Jerusalem and the West Bank in 1967 it came under Israeli control, although the Waqf, a Jordanian-appointed body, manages the compound.

East Jerusalem was annexed by Israel in 1980 in a move not recognised by the international community.

“Israel has no right to impose its power to prohibit or restrict the entry of Palestinian worshippers, whether from the West Bank, Gaza or ‘48 territories,” Mohammad Jadallah, a surgeon and volunteer doctor providing emergency services to believers in Al-Aqsa, told TNA.

The Muslim holy month is typically a period of heightened tensions around East Jerusalem’s mosque complex as Israel sets age-based access restrictions on Palestinians from the West Bank and East Jerusalem for “security reasons”.

In the last three years, there have been clashes between Palestinians and Israeli forces at Al-Aqsa during Ramadan, with Jewish extremists and Israeli police frequently raiding the site. In 2021, the storming of the mosque by police sparked Jewish-Palestinian violence across the country and escalated into an 11-day war in Gaza.

Though no official decision has been announced yet, the recent statement from Netanyahu’s cabinet adds more fuel to the fire, risking a major backlash in Jerusalem and beyond.

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“Ramadan is always a tense period. If they close Al-Aqsa to Palestinian youths, with the war in Gaza and the West Bank heating up, there will be chaos,” Risheq said, adding that if the same strict rules are imposed on Palestinian citizens of Israel, “there will be even more chaos”.

Grassroots Jerusalem’s director highlighted that Israel has long sought to Judaize Jerusalem and tighten its security grip through discriminatory and oppressive policies in occupied East Jerusalem. But Palestinians have kept on challenging its policy of ethnic cleansing. “What they want to do is obvious, what they can do is totally different,” he pointed out.

Jadallah also maintained that Palestinians would keep resisting Israel’s actions on the ground, including its diktat on access to Jerusalem’s Old City sites. Referring to Israel’s “dream”, he said: “The Israelis think this is the right time to finish with Gaza, end the resistance there, then move to Jerusalem and dominate Al-Aqsa”.

The doctor said that Israel’s master plan is to “expel” Palestinians from their homeland. In his view, the fallout from a decision to allow a limited number of Muslim believers to the sacred site may be “beyond imagination” in terms of Palestinian anger.

The controversial access restrictions come at a time when Israel is waging an unprecedented war on Gaza that has killed over 30,000 Palestinians. [Getty]

“It’s all part of a premeditated, deliberate and calculated plan,” Middle East analyst Mouin Rabbani told TNA, arguing that the Al-Aqsa entry ban on Palestinian worshippers for Ramadan is aimed at provoking a “generalised uprising” among Palestinians in the West Bank and “significant unrest” among Palestinian citizens of Israel.

The resulting turmoil, the analyst said, would be then “used as a pretext with full, unconditional Western support to crush Palestinian communities”.

Israel’s provocative policies may also be intended to widen the conflict in the region, with far-right members of the Israeli government hoping for a regional war, and Netanyahu’s government seemingly supporting their agenda.

“It’s calculated to expand the conflict in a way that the West, in particular the US, will act to defend Israel,” Rabbani said.

Alessandra Bajec is a freelance journalist currently based in Tunis.

Follow her on Twitter: @AlessandraBajec