Israel's reported plan to restrict Al Aqsa access in Ramadan sparks fears of violence

Reports follow far-right minister's calls to limit Palestinian access to the third holiest site in Islam during holy month, despite warnings tense situation could explode

Israeli police have placed severe restrictions on access to Al Aqsa Mosque complex since October 7. Reuters
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Israel's Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu plans to restrict access for Muslims at Jerusalem’s Al Aqsa Mosque during Ramadan, according to Israeli media reports, with many fearing the measures could provoke widespread violence amid already seething tensions due to the Gaza war.

Mr Netanyahu endorsed recommendations from far-right National Security Minister Itamar Ben-Gvir to limit the number of Arab-Israeli worshippers who will be able access the site, leading Israeli newspapers and TV channels reported on Sunday, citing sources within the government.

The Al Aqsa Mosque is the third holiest site in Islam and a central flashpoint in the Palestinian-Israeli conflict. Prayer at the mosque, particularly during Ramadan, is deeply important to many Palestinians and Israeli police restrictions on access to the site have led to violence on a number of occasions.

Following the reports by major Israeli outlets including Haaretz and Channel 12, the Israeli Prime Minister’s office issued a vague counter-statement that promised a “balanced decision that allows freedom of religion with necessary security limits, which have been set by professional officials”.

"Any other report is incorrect," the statement said.

Israeli police have imposed restrictions on who can access the compound since the start of the war in Gaza on October 7. These initially limited access to Al Aqsa for Friday prayers to people older 70 but they were recently relaxed.

Mr Ben-Gvir is pushing for similar age restrictions to be imposed over Ramadan but security services oppose his suggestions, according to the Israeli media reports.

Palestinians from the occupied West Bank have been barred entirely from entering Israel since the Gaza war broke out. This has taken a devastating economic toll on the Palestinian economy, given the many thousands of workers who normally travel into Israel to work.

Political analyst Nihad Abughosh warned that if Palestinians from the West Bank were barred from visiting Al Aqsa, the situation could deteriorate swiftly.

“If this crisis is not resolved, it will lead to some kind of explosion because Ramadan is a very, very sensitive time,” he told The National. “There is a natural law about accumulation of pressure on people where you just reach a point where you explode. So it’s going to be very difficult.”

Speaking in Ramallah, he said the ban would lead to serious deterioration in an already highly tense atmosphere between illegal Israeli settlers and Palestinians.

Mr Ben-Gvir has long argued that Israel should have total control of Al Aqsa compound. In Judaism it is considered it a holy site at which the first and second Jewish temples stood.

The far-right minister is himself a settler and has long advocated Israel seizing control of Al Aqsa Mosque compound and annexing the West Bank, both areas he views as integral parts of a biblical Jewish state.

Despite widespread denunciation from the international community, he has also visited the site on a number of occasions during his ministerial career, breaching the long-standing status quo agreement whereby Jordanian religious institution the Jerusalem Waqf has authority in the area.

A number of Israeli politicians have opposed Mr Ben-Gvir's recommendations, stressing the need for policies that do not inflame tensions during the holy month.

War Cabinet Minister Benny Gantz, who joined Mr Netanyahu’s unity government during the Gaza war, said on X that while there will be some restrictions on prayer over Ramadan given the “security situation”, a definite list had “yet to be decided”.

He added: “The security forces will finalise their recommendations in accordance with the latest situation assessments and will subsequently be presented to the political echelon for decision-making."

Updated: April 08, 2024, 10:51 AM