Tense quiet in Jerusalem during last Friday prayers before Ramadan

Despite the holy month's message of peace, the Gaza war and Israeli restrictions on Palestinians have stoked fears of confrontation over access to Al Aqsa

Palestinians take part in Friday prayers, the last before the beginning of Ramadan. AFP
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Compared to much of the past five months, the atmosphere in Jerusalem’s Muslim Quarter during the last Friday prayers before Ramadan seemed positive.

The streets around Al Aqsa Mosque were busier than usual, more shops were open and Israeli security forces turned away fewer worshippers than in the months since October 7 when the Gaza war began, prompting strict age limits for entry to the mosque compound and forcing the vast majority to pray outside its gates.

However, things are still far from normal, particularly for the period leading up to Ramadan.

The Muslim Quarter should have been packed with Palestinians shopping in preparation for the holiest month in the Islamic calendar, with foreign pilgrims arriving in greater numbers. And people should not have been going about their day so quietly, with eyes trained tensely on the ground.

“Israelis in the media started the problematic idea that this Ramadan will be one of bloodshed – they shouldn’t have, it’s a big mistake,” says Abu El Walid Dajani, a hotelier in the Old City, expressing frustration at the suggestion that the holy month could be the spark for an escalation of violence between Israelis and Palestinians.

“What’s their idea? That Muslims are killers? That they are waiting for Ramadan to come to start killing? This is not Islam,” he adds.

“If I was Israeli, I would not put the idea that Ramadan will be something big in the heads of young people. If I was them, I’d put stalls giving out food for free on Jaffa Gate.”

But it is still a question on the minds of people across the Holy Land and beyond.

Hamas has called on Palestinians to barricade themselves within the walls of Al Aqsa, the third holiest site in Islam, and Israel’s far right seems determined to use the war in Gaza as cover to exercise extra control over the area, which is also of great religious significance in Judaism.

Many Palestinians say celebration feels impossible due to the brutality of the Gaza war, which appears to have no end in sight after repeated failures to broker an extended truce.

Palestinians in Gaza are clinging on to life as Israel's military continues its bombardment and ground operations, and the humanitarian crisis grows increasingly desperate.

It is not so desperate for Palestinians outside Gaza but there is still huge anger. No Palestinians from the occupied West Bank can access Jerusalem, a painful restriction on worship for people from the area and a damaging hit to the income of Old City business owners for whom Ramadan should be a particularly profitable time.

Even for Palestinians in Israel, this is set to be one of the most restricted Ramadans in some time.

In recent weeks, Palestinians and Israelis have been sounding the alarm over radical plans by Israel’s far-right National Security Minister Itamar Ben-Gvir to impose tough restrictions on the number of Palestinian citizens of Israel who can visit Al Aqsa.

Many of his critics accuse the “pyromaniac” minister of trying to ignite a “holy war” to advance his goal of more Jewish settlements in the occupied territories.

Reports emerged this week that, contrary to Mr Ben-Gvir’s wishes and on the advice of large sections of Israel’s security services, severe restrictions will not be imposed.

Only the coming weeks will tell if this is enough to keep a lid on tensions.

For now, the largely silent and sombre mood around Al Aqsa, the symbol at the heart of the conflict between Palestinians and Israelis, indicates a period of great uncertainty.

Updated: April 08, 2024, 10:54 AM