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Will there be another confrontation in Al-Aqsa Mosque this Ramadan?

February 14, 2024 at 11:34 am

A view of an empty Masjid Al-Aqsa as Israel continue its wide restrictions on 17th week towards Palestinians those who want to perform Friday prayers in Al-Aqsa Compound, in Jerusalem on February 02, 2024 [Mohammad Hamad – Anadolu Agency]

With the holy month of Ramadan approaching, the Israeli security services have started to prepare for what is generally the most difficult month for them every year. This is especially true this year, with Ramadan coming amid or maybe in the wake of the ongoing war against the Palestinians in the Gaza Strip. Either way, Ramadan will arrive amid an unprecedented level of aggression and hostility by illegal settler groups and the extreme right wing in Israel following the events of 7 October, which Israel has not yet been able to come to terms with or deal with its effects. This is despite the horrific degree of death and destruction that it has rained down upon the Gaza Strip, and the undeclared war against the Palestinians in the occupied West Bank and Jerusalem.

Israel’s preparations for Ramadan this year are thus the most sensitive since the start of its occupation of the mosque in 1967. Nevertheless, we know from experience that when it comes to the holy month in Al-Aqsa Mosque, the occupation authorities usually face challenges on two levels.

The first is represented by young Jerusalemites, usually with Palestinians from the 1948-occupied areas — now called Israel — who should otherwise be able to access the blessed Al-Aqsa Mosque at other times of the year because they hold Israeli identity cards. They often pose the greatest security burden for the Israeli security services at the mosque, especially the young Palestinians from Jerusalem, who regard themselves as being in constant confrontation with the Israeli occupation state, and have previously been the first line of defence in many previous confrontations with the occupation forces inside Al-Aqsa Mosque.

The second level is related to Palestinian residents of the West Bank, who are usually prevented by Israel from accessing Al-Aqsa Mosque freely, apart from during the holy month of Ramadan, when limited numbers of West Bank Palestinians of specific ages every year, both men and women, as well as those holding security permits, are allowed to pray in the mosque, on Fridays especially. The only problem they pose for the Israeli authorities is their large number. Nevertheless, the young Jerusalemites tend to take advantage of the mass of people in the Noble Sanctuary compound, and this is what the Israelis have to consider every year.

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When the numbers in Al-Aqsa Mosque are limited, the Israeli security services can take control over the mosque in general, and control movement, stop any friction or clashes, and disperse people easily. However, an increased number of people inside the mosque is considered a major security challenge because the occupation police are unable to control the movement of people effectively, especially in cases of security unrest such as the one witnessed at the mosque during Ramadan in 2021.

The bottom line is that Israel fears the holy month of Ramadan, so how will it cope this year in light of everything else that is happening in the region?

A media leak has already appeared suggesting that there are disagreements between the army and the police regarding allowing West Bank Palestinians to access Al-Aqsa Mosque during the upcoming holy month. This was reported in Yedioth Ahronoth a few days ago.

According to Israeli journalist Itamar Eichner, the occupation police under the authority of extreme far-right National Security Minister Itamar Ben-Gvir want to implement a “zero Palestinians” policy and prevent all Palestinian residents of the occupied West Bank from entering Al-Aqsa Mosque during Ramadan. The Israeli army, however, believes that a limited number of West Bank residents should be allowed to reach Al-Aqsa in order to relieve the intense pressure in the occupied Palestinian territory.

I believe that this has been leaked intentionally, because the aim is clearly to restrict the access of West Bank residents to Jerusalem this year almost completely, despite Yedioth Ahronoth’s claims of disagreements between the police and army. These disagreements are not about the principle involved, but the number of people: should Israel allow a very limited number of West Bank residents to pray in Al-Aqsa, or prevent them all from doing so?

This is to be expected, as it makes no sense for Israel to put pressure on the West Bank cities with its daily attacks, only for it to open the gates of Jerusalem to their residents, while Jerusalem itself is closed to its Palestinian residents. I also think that the leak is intended to prepare Palestinians for not being allowed to pray in Al-Aqsa Mosque during Ramadan.

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The blessed month coincides with a number of Jewish festivals that typically witness raids by Israelis and their security forces into Al-Aqsa Mosque. The first of these is Purim, which will fall in the middle of Ramadan. Although it is not usually one of the seasons for major raids, the fact that this year it coincides with the challenge of the month of Ramadan and the context of events in Gaza gives it additional importance to the extremist Jewish “temple groups”, the right-wing religious Zionism movement, and the neofascist Kahanist movement, of which the far-right Ben-Gvir is one of its most important pillars.

Ramadan and the Jewish festival season will be an opportunity to showcase Ben-Gvir’s power in Al-Aqsa Mosque, and to demonstrate his ability to impose Israeli sovereignty over the Noble Sanctuary in a way that even Benjamin Netanyahu himself is unable to do. Perhaps this will be a golden opportunity for Ben-Gvir to present himself as the leader of the far right in Israel, which is what he has been trying to do since his appointment as a minister, especially when the genocide in Gaza began.

The few weeks coming up will, therefore, be very important, as the right-wing Israeli government evaluates what happens in preparation for the next Jewish holiday, Passover, which falls immediately after the end of Ramadan. This year, the extremist temple groups will attempt to perform animal sacrifices inside Al-Aqsa Mosque in a more serious manner than before, taking advantage of the end of Ramadan, and the fewer Muslims present, as is usual after the fasting month.

The major challenge facing the occupation state is to reduce the number of Muslims in Al-Aqsa Mosque during Ramadan, while enabling the Purim incursions to such an extent that they are regarded as a success. If all goes according to Israel’s plan, it will work up an appetite for the ritual animal sacrifices inside the mosque, which would be the last religious ritual required in order to establish a change in the status quo in Al-Aqsa by turning it into a Jewish temple. The plan is to seize part of Al-Aqsa Mosque as a prelude to turning it into a temple, or by completely controlling at least half of the area of the holy site, the third holiest in the Muslim world. Israel has dreamt of doing this for more than 55 years, and the resistance groups are well aware of this fact. Not for nothing was the Hamas-led incursion on 7 October called “Operation Al-Aqsa Flood”.

This puts the ball in the court of the Jerusalemites and the Palestinian people in the West Bank, as Israel’s ability to implement these plans depends on how they and their compatriots in the occupation state deal with the expected ban on accessing Al-Aqsa Mosque during Ramadan, when religious spirit and practice are generally at their strongest.

The occupation authorities fear this annual boost of Islamic zeal, because it is this which prompts Palestinians throughout the blessed month to intensify their psychological and spiritual preparations to challenge Israeli measures on every level. Israel does not want this, because it knows that any major spark in Jerusalem could ignite a new intifada, or lead to an expansion of the war in Gaza to a degree that neither Israel nor its allies can afford to contemplate.

This article first appeared in Arabic in the Palestinian Information Centre on 9 February 2024

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