Jerusalem on edge as shops shut and streets empty after Al Aqsa Mosque raid

Police storm compound on Wednesday, injuring dozens and arresting hundreds

Israeli police detain a Palestinian man at Al Aqsa Mosque compound in Jerusalem on Wednesday. AFP
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Read more: Israeli police attack worshippers at Jerusalem's Al Aqsa Mosque

The main question hanging over Jerusalem during the past month has been when — rather than if — tensions will boil over during Ramadan.

The Old City’s shopkeepers might have got their answer on Wednesday morning.

After Israeli police stormed Jerusalem's Al Aqsa Mosque compound early on Wednesday, attacking worshippers and arresting hundreds, a walk through the Muslim Quarter shows the vast majority of businesses closed.

In the busiest tourism and pilgrimage season, that decision would not have been taken lightly.

There will be a holy war soon, I’m sure of it. It will be terrible for Jerusalem
Nadim, local teacher

Many shut up shop after Israeli forces stormed the mosque, the third holiest site in Islam, firing stun grenades as Palestinians threw stones and fireworks inside the prayer hall.

At least 12 people were injured, the Palestinian Red Crescent said.

Some shopkeepers said closures were only during daytime in Ramadan, but many more said the events at the mosque the night before were to blame and that businesspeople were waiting for noon prayers to finish in case of further incidents.

On Saturday, 26-year-old Palestinian Mohammed Alasibi, was shot dead in Al Aqsa compound. It was another moment that could have reignited simmering tensions but the situation felt more contained than it does now.

At the time of Mr Alasibi’s death, a Palestinian photographer from Jerusalem said crowds in the streets outside his home were far bigger this Ramadan than in the recent past.

That meant local shopkeepers were getting more business than in previous years, when Israeli authorities allowed far fewer worshippers into the site.

If shops stayed shut, that buffer would disappear. Foreign embassies warn that sudden closures are a sign that citizens should leave the area.

That was the case on Wednesday morning. On Suq El Qatanin, a main road that leads to Al Aqsa Mosque compound, one shop selling spices was open. The owners said it was a Ramadan lull.

But up the street, an owner of a souvenir shop said that he would open in the afternoon and that the violence were to blame.

The owner of a restaurant called City of Peace, one of the only establishments operating on Wednesday morning, said the same.

The elderly chef stayed away from Al Aqsa last night. “It would have been too dangerous for me,” he said.

Some tourists returned in the afternoon. Two English tourists sitting in the restaurant, Rod and Ruthie, were unsure about whether to stay in the area. They chose to remain drinking coffee for a while, keen to observe how quickly things can change in the Old City.

Other visitors were less subtle. A religious tour group just up the road stationed itself next to a smaller gate to Al Aqsa, outside the Little Western Wall, a pilgrimage site.

Pointing to the compound, sacred for Muslims and Jews, the guide told about 30 tourists: “Neither me nor you can go there. Why? Because of the mosque. It’s only for Muslims.”

But only a few metres away, Israeli soldiers, one of them smoking at a time when Muslims are fasting, were turning away more worshippers than they were letting in.

Two of the unsuccessful ones, a husband and wife, made a small protest and trudged on. “We’ll just try another gate,” one said.

At an entrance down the road, no one was being let in at all. Nadim, a teacher, sat outside.

“There will be holy war soon, I’m sure of it,” he said. "It will be terrible for Jerusalem."

Many of the conditions typical for violent escalation are present.

Ramadan has fallen in the same month as Passover and Easter, at a time when Israel has the most right-wing government in its history — and after one of its ministers encouraged Jews to access the compound.

Anger is rising throughout the Palestinian Territories, most dangerously manifesting itself in a new generation of militants in the occupied West Bank.

Last month, former Israeli general Amir Avivi said the collapse of the Palestinian Authority, which is rapidly losing local support, and a takeover of a West Bank city by a militant group would be a red line for the Israelis.

“We cannot have a second Gaza in the West Bank, because of its proximity to Israel’s main cities,” he said.

"If one were to happen, we would see a large-scale Israeli military operation. The army has recently conducted exercises on such a scenario."

The red lines for militant groups are also clear. The one on their minds on Wednesday would be whether a Jewish citizen was to get into Al Aqsa Mosque compound and ritually sacrifice an animal, an ancient Passover tradition.

It barely happens now and would be a drastic provocation of Muslims. On Wednesday, Israeli police had already arrested a man trying to perform the ritual.

Militant groups Hamas and Islamic Jihad have called for Palestinians to confront Israeli forces at Al Aqsa.

Even Jordan, a crucial diplomatic and stabilising player, is stepping up its messaging. On Sunday, King Abdullah II said “it is the duty of every Muslim to deter Israeli escalations against holy sites in Jerusalem”.

Now, Palestine and Israel could be closer to finding out an answer to the terrible question of whether war is near.

Updated: April 06, 2023, 5:44 AM