Palestinians fear Israeli violence in Jerusalem during Ramadan

As Palestinians get ready for Ramadan, numerous individuals worry that Israeli authorities and far-right Israelis might instigate unrest.

Palestinians pray on Laylat al-Qadr of Ramadan in the Al-Aqsa Mosque compound, in Jerusalem's Old City, on April 17, 2023 [Raneen Sawafta/Reuters]
Palestinians pray on Laylat al-Qadr of Ramadan in the Al-Aqsa Mosque compound, in Jerusalem’s Old City, on April 17, 2023 [Raneen Sawafta/Reuters]

Occupied East Jerusalem – As the residents of occupied East Jerusalem gear up for Islam’s sacred month of Ramadan, the atmosphere is tense.

Throughout the daylight hours, Ramadan necessitates that practicing Muslims refrain from eating, drinking, smoking, and engaging in sexual relations until they break their fast with loved ones, friends, and communities.

However, the Palestinians interviewed by Al Jazeera express feelings of despair, making them hesitant to adorn their surroundings or partake in celebrations.

Many are simply hoping for a ceasefire in Gaza, where over 31,000 individuals have lost their lives in Israeli retaliations following a lethal assault on Israeli civilians and military outposts by the Qassam Brigades and other Palestinian armed groups on October 7.

Others worry about potential attacks on Palestinians by Israeli authorities and far-right settlers during the holy month, as part of a broader strategy of collective punishment, a scenario that has unfolded in the past.

“I’m genuinely concerned about potential provocations,” remarked Munir Nuseibah, a Palestinian human rights lawyer residing in East Jerusalem. “History has taught us that increased police presence and intervention in East Jerusalem during Ramadan often lead to [violent] confrontations.”

History of violence

During Ramadan, tensions often escalate around Al-Aqsa Mosque, the third-holiest site in Islam. Palestinians from across the occupied West Bank aspire to pray in the mosque, yet Israeli police traditionally impede access and confront worshippers.

Last year, Palestinians took to barricading themselves inside the mosque to safeguard itikaf, a religious practice involving spending entire nights in prayer and worship within mosques, from Israeli police interference.

Israeli police detain a Palestinian worshipper at Al-Aqsa Mosque during Ramadan on April 5, 2023 [Mahmoud Illean/AP Photo]
Israeli police detain a Palestinian worshipper at Al-Aqsa Mosque during Ramadan on April 5, 2023 [Mahmoud Illean/AP Photo]

However, Israeli security forces managed to breach the barricades, using stun grenades and tear gas and indiscriminately assaulting worshippers, including women and the elderly. At least 450 Palestinian men were detained.

“There is nothing inherently violent about Al-Aqsa and certainly nothing inherently violent about Ramadan. It’s important to remember that because some people get the idea that this is all about Islam,” remarked Daniel Siedmann, a lawyer and Jerusalem resident.

Palestinians attribute much of the violence to provocative actions by Israeli authorities, who control the city and the holy site.

Israeli police frequently permit hundreds of Israeli Jews – who refer to Al-Aqsa Mosque as the Temple Mount – access to the holy site, contravening the most recent status-quo agreement ratified by Israel, Jordan, Palestine, and the United States in 2015.

The agreement asserts that Al-Aqsa Mosque is exclusively a place of worship for Muslims but allows non-Muslim access on designated days and hours. However, many fear that far-right Israeli officials may seek to incite Palestinians by admitting Israelis into the mosque to provoke or clash with worshippers.

“There is apprehension and fear among everyone that Israeli settlers will attempt to provoke Palestinians. The Israeli government is against the Palestinian people,” expressed Rony, a 27-year-old Palestinian from occupied East Jerusalem.

Israeli forces storm Al-Aqsa Mosque during Ramadan [ Al Jazeera Newsfeed ]

A flashpoint?

The Israeli police fall under the authority of Itamar Ben-Gvir, the far-right Minister of National Security. In February, he advocated for prohibiting Palestinian residents in the West Bank from attending prayers at the mosque during Ramadan.

Subsequently, Israeli officials disregarded his proposal, seemingly aiming to uphold calm in Jerusalem. However, they did announce intentions to implement certain restrictions on “security grounds.”

Seidmann emphasized that Ben-Gvir could still incite chaos, even if he is overseeing officers outside the compound.

“Just because Ben-Gvir isn’t directly influencing events at the gates of Al-Aqsa doesn’t mean he won’t cause disruptions 200 or 300 meters away from the mosque,” he conveyed to Al Jazeera.

Ibrahim Matar, a Christian Palestinian from occupied East Jerusalem, cautioned that any violence against Palestinian worshippers in East Jerusalem or the wider occupied West Bank could ignite widespread unrest.

He emphasized the symbolic significance of Al-Aqsa for all Palestinians and recalled how the late Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat abandoned the heavily criticized peace process in 2000, partly due to Israel’s insistence on retaining sovereignty over the mosque.

Two months later, Israel’s then-opposition leader Ariel Sharon led a group of more than 1,000 heavily armed policemen and soldiers to storm Al-Aqsa. This action sparked outrage and ultimately led to the second Intifada, a five-year Palestinian uprising against Israel’s occupation.

Tens of thousands of Muslims pray near the Dome of the Rock in Al-Aqsa Mosque compound on April 17, 2023, 27 Ramadan, believed to be Laylat al-Qadr, one of the holiest nights during the month [Hazem Bader/AFP]
Tens of thousands of Muslims pray near the Dome of the Rock in Al-Aqsa Mosque compound on April 17, 2023, 27 Ramadan, believed to be Laylat al-Qadr, one of the holiest nights during the month [Hazem Bader/AFP]

In the shadow of Israel’s war on Gaza, Matar believes that a similar move by the Israelis could set off another chapter of popular unrest. “Al-Aqsa could be a flashpoint for another war,” he told Al Jazeera.

Under the shadow of war

My knowledge cut-off date is January 2022.

Palestinian citizens of Israel and those in the occupied territory express that the ongoing bloodshed in Gaza looms over everyone like a dark cloud.

US President Joe Biden has sought to mediate a truce in Gaza to secure the release of Israeli captives still held by Hamas and to ease tensions during Ramadan. However, with the prospects for a ceasefire appearing slim, Rony believes the war will impact the relationship between Palestinians and Israelis in Jerusalem.

He mentioned that many Palestinians are emotionally affected by witnessing the distressing scenes of the war on television and social media. He also worries that Israeli officials or ministers may capitalize on their frustration by harassing Palestinians in East Jerusalem.

“Most of us feel like we are in a state of confinement at home. We feel compelled to stay indoors to avoid potential harm or harassment during Ramadan,” he conveyed to Al Jazeera.

Matar concurs, emphasizing the symbiotic relationship between Gaza and Al-Aqsa. He recollected the brief 11-day conflict between Hamas and Israel in 2021, sparked by Israeli attacks on worshippers in Al-Aqsa and the eviction of Palestinians from Sheikh Jarrah, a neighborhood in East Jerusalem. Similar unrest could unfold during this Ramadan.

“If one part of Palestine is suffering, then every part of Palestine suffers,” Matar highlighted to Al Jazeera.

Many Palestinians barred from Al-Aqsa Mosque in Ramadan [ Al Jazeera ]
Atif Wattoo
Atif Wattoo
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