At Jerusalem’s al-Aqsa Mosque, Ramadan brings uncertainty and fear


JERUSALEM — Just days before the start of Ramadan — the busiest and often most volatile month in Jerusalem’s Old City — the offices of al-Aqsa Mosque were bustling with preparations and uncertainty.

Even in quieter years, al-Aqsa is a Ramadan tinderbox. Hundreds of thousands of Palestinians come to worship at this mosque that has sat for more than a millennium on a site that both Muslims and Jews claim as sacred ground. It’s administered by Jordan, but access is controlled by Israeli security.

Jews revere the site they call the Temple Mount as the location of the first and second temples and worship at the Western Wall, a remnant of the ancient complex. Muslims know it as the Noble Sanctuary, where the prophet Muhammad is said to have ascended to heaven.

It’s the holiest site in Judaism and third holiest in Islam. The competing claims are one of the most challenging elements of the decades-long Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

Clashes here have been a repeated flash point for war. In 2021, fighting between police and Palestinians during Ramadan sparked a two-week escalation with Hamas 50 miles away in Gaza. An Israeli police raid last spring to clear protesters who had locked themselves inside ignited a second round of fighting.

Hamas regularly cites protecting al-Aqsa as a justification for its attacks, including the Oct. 7 raid on Israeli towns, where fighters killed around 1,200 people, Israeli authorities say, and kidnapped 253 others. The militants called it Operation al-Aqsa Flood.

Now, in the wake of those attacks, an even more devastating Gaza war rages. The Israeli campaign against Hamas has killed more than 30,000 Gazans, health officials there say, and with Ramadan only days away, tensions around al-Aqsa are soaring. Hard-liners in the Israeli government have pushed to limit the number, age and gender of Palestinians allowed on the plateau, prompting warnings from both sides that restrictions could lead to violence.

This week, the dozens of workers who were racing to prepare the mosque still had no idea what to expect.

In a crowded office overlooking the compound, Azzam al-Khatib, the head of the Jordanian-appointed Islamic organization that manages al-Aqsa, read the latest rumors aloud from his phone.

“Now I’m seeing that only 10,000 to 15,000 will be allowed for the whole month,” he said.

If that report proved true, it would be fraction of the normal Ramadan crowd, which last year totaled about 1.4 million. On one peak Friday, the compound hosted more than 300,000 worshipers.

The rumors surprised surrounding staffers. Those limits would contradict public assurances from Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s office that Israel had decided not to significantly curtail access to the mosque.

Part of the problem, staffers said, is that Israeli officials don’t talk to them directly, leaving them at the mercy of contradictory media reports.

“There is no communication between them and us,” said Mohammed al-Sharif. “We still do not know what is going to happen.”

Islam’s holiest month begins with the sighting of the first crescent after the new moon. This year, that’s expected to come on Sunday or Monday evening. For now, the staff that runs al-Aqsa from this maze of arched stone offices is preparing for normal crowds. That means setting up a dozen medical tents on the plaza and organizing iftar dinners after sunset to celebrate the end of the daily fast for tens of thousands of worshipers.

More than 300 volunteers, many of them Palestinian boy scouts, are set to direct men toward al-Aqsa and women toward the gold-leafed Dome of the Rock, day after day. Ambulances will be stationed near the Old City gates to respond to routine emergencies or violence.

Israel is prepping for the worst. Police officials said they will keep about 1,000 officers deployed around the Old City on weekdays and 2,500 or more on Fridays, the Muslim holy day of Jumu’ah. The heavy presence was already evident outside of the Old City’s Damascus Gate, where police often clash with younger Palestinians on Ramadan evenings.

The lead-up to this wartime Ramadan has exposed divisions in Israel’s government and security establishment. The most conservative members of the government want to cut off access to al-Aqsa for most Palestinians as long as more than 100 Israelis continue to be held hostage in Gaza.

Itamar Ben Gvir, the firebrand national security minister who controls Israeli police, pushed plans to largely ban worshipers from the site, citing security risks and the hostages, Israeli media reported last month. Elderly Palestinians would be allowed, according to the reports, but younger residents of the West Bank and Israel would be barred.

“It can’t be that women and children are hostages in Gaza and we allow Hamas victory celebrations on the Temple Mount,” Ben Gvir wrote on X.

Long-standing agreements with Jordan allow visits to the plaza but prohibit anyone except Muslims to worship there. Jews pray at the Western Wall. But in recent years, extremist Jewish groups have increasingly sent activists to the al-Aqsa compound to pray, sometimes openly, which Palestinians view as a provocation.

Ben Gvir, who began his career in the radical settler movement that seeks more control over the Temple Mount, has made at least three visits to the plaza since taking charge of the police. Some Israeli officials have accused him of “reckless” rhetoric that could further inflame Palestinians and the wider Arab world at a dangerous time.

“The army and the intelligence professionals are telling everyone that it does not do us any good to pour fuel on the fire right now,” said a former military official familiar with discussions inside the cabinet. “The fire is burning very hot as it is.” He spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss the sensitive issue.

Netanyahu declined for several weeks to take a stand on Ben Gvir’s proposals. But on Tuesday, following a security cabinet meeting in which security leaders reportedly advised caution, the prime minister’s office announced that Israel will not impose any restrictions at the start of Ramadan but will evaluate conditions on a weekly basis.

“Ramadan is holy for Muslims, and the sanctity of the holiday will be preserved this year, as it is every year,” his office said in a statement.

Khatib, the mosque director, said his team will be ready to adjust as the month progresses.

“Inshallah, it will remain peaceful and Muslims from anywhere will be allowed to come worship,” he said, using the Arabic phrase for “God willing.”

Whatever happens, this Ramadan promises to be a somber one here. Normally, the area around the al-Aqsa plaza would be strung with lights and the narrow lanes would be crowded with families buying clothes for the month and food for the nightly iftar banquets.

But on Friday, the Old City remained quiet and undecorated, the mood dampened by the ongoing tragedy in Gaza.

Ammar Sidr, 47, works with the one of the youth groups that normally festoons the entrance to al-Aqsa with 60 Ramadan lamps and thousands of yards of electric lights.

“This year we did nothing,” he said. “Ramadan this year is sad.”


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