During Ramadan, Palestinians Barred From Aqsa Turn to Smugglers


JERUSALEM — Only moonlight broke the darkness early one morning as a smuggler led Husam Misk to a ladder propped against Israel’s concrete separation wall.

Mr. Misk, a 27-year-old dentist, said he climbed the ladder quickly but was still close to the top of the 26-foot wall. He grabbed the edge where the barbed wire had been cut and pulled himself up, pausing to scan the area. No sign of soldiers.

He grabbed the rope dangling from the other side, braced his feet against the wall, and lowered himself.

About an hour later, Mr. Misk said he walked onto the grounds of the Al-Aqsa Mosque in Jerusalem just in time to hear the morning prayers. Barred from entering Jerusalem legally from his West Bank home, he was one of many Palestinians who resorted to other means during the holy month of Ramadan to visit one of Islam’s holiest sites.

“I come with conviction to pray and show solidarity,” said Mr Misk, sitting in the shade of a tree on the Aqsa compound one afternoon. “Because Al Aqsa is the center of the struggle between us and the Israelis.”

The Israeli government, which generally prohibits West Bank residents from entering Jerusalem without permits, usually eases restrictions to allow hundreds of thousands to visit Al Aqsa during Ramadan. Children up to the age of 12, women and men over the age of 50 may take part in Friday prayers there without permission. Men between the ages of 40 and 50 can enter with an existing permit.

But most of the young men with criminal records are turned away at official border crossings or are refused entry. While Palestinians argue such restrictions are discriminatory, Israeli officials, still reeling from a spate of Palestinian attacks that killed 14 just before Ramadan, insist they are necessary security measures.

Many Palestinians denied entry — hundreds a day, those crossing say — instead scale the disputed separation wall, go through openings that have been cut where the barrier is a metal fence, or hike through mountainous terrain where there are gaps in the barrier there. Others make appointments with doctors to obtain medical permits to enter Jerusalem, or bribe soldiers or Jewish settlers to get them through checkpoints, according to people who have used the methods.

Some livestream their journeys to encourage other Palestinians to follow their path.

While respondents who circumvented the rules said they came to Aqsa to pray or pay homage to the historic site, Israeli officials said uncontrolled entry posed a potential security threat.

Hundreds of Palestinians, mostly young men, have been arrested at the mosque over the past two weeks and accused of the riots. A police spokesman said that “a handful” of those arrested entered Israel illegally.

In the past two years, during the coronavirus pandemic, security along the 440-mile barrier has relaxed and openings in the fences have multiplied.

Recent Palestinian attacks have drawn the government’s attention to security deficiencies. Israeli authorities identified one of the attackers, a gunman who killed five people in a Tel Aviv suburb last month, as a West Bank resident who had entered Israel illegally.

Prime Minister Naftali Bennett, speaking about the gaps in the barrier at a cabinet meeting this month, acknowledged “it has been riddled with holes for years”.

Since then, the Israeli military has increased security along the fence, repairing breaches, digging trenches to prevent vehicles crossing and deploying more soldiers. And Israel’s security cabinet approved more than $100 million to build an additional 40 km barrier.

The struggle of some Palestinians to reach Al Aqsa is part of a broader confrontation for control of the mosque compound — known to Jews as the Temple Mount, the site of an ancient temple and the holiest site in Judaism — and the ancient heart of Jerusalem, known as the Old City .

Israel captured the Old City of Jordan along with the rest of East Jerusalem in 1967. Israel has since annexed the area as part of its capital, but much of the world, including the United Nations Security Council, considers it occupied territory.

The Palestinians see East Jerusalem as the future capital of a Palestinian state. Some fear the mosque site is under threat from increasing numbers of Jewish worshipers who are allowed to enter the mountain and pray there, as well as a fringe group of right-wing activists trying to rebuild the Jewish temple there.

Tensions have exploded over the past two weeks in clashes between Palestinians and paramilitary Israeli police. Sometimes the police forced Palestinians out of parts of the compound or imprisoned them in mosques to ensure access for tourists and Jewish worshipers.

Last Friday, Israeli authorities turned away crowds of Palestinians, particularly men, from the West Bank to Al-Aqsa for Friday prayers.

Israeli authorities did not respond to questions about how many Palestinians from the West Bank and Gaza Strip applied to visit the mosque this Ramadan, nor how many were turned down.

Aqsa seems out of reach, especially for young men. Ibrahim, a 24-year-old university student from Bethlehem, compared an Israeli passport to a golden ticket: “It’s like Willy Wonka, few get it.”

Ibrahim, who did not want his last name published, enters Jerusalem legally with a medical clearance and then visits Al Aqsa. For him, the trip is not about religion. It’s about visiting a place important to Palestinian identity and silently confronting Israeli occupation.

“They deploy police and security guards, but I can still enter,” he said. “It’s about asserting our existence.”

Mr. Misk applied for a permit in 2015 while he was still in college and was denied. He said he was only told his refusal was “due to security concerns”.

The next week he went in with a smuggler and hasn’t bothered to apply for another permit since.

“It is easier for us to go to Mecca to visit the Kaaba than to come here to Al Aqsa,” he said. “If I want to go to Mecca, I apply for a visa and go. But if I want to come to Al Aqsa, I have to take a risk and go over the wall and I might get shot.”

One day this month, Mr. Misk tried to enter Israel with some friends through a forested area and was caught by Israeli soldiers. The soldiers tied their hands behind their backs and made them face down on the ground for six hours, he said, before marching back to the West Bank and releasing them.

The next day he paid a smuggler $15 to get him over the barrier.

Recently, as Mousa Naser waited his turn to scale the wall, dozens of men who had crossed in front of him were trapped on the other side. When the soldiers took the men away, Mr. Naser and others set off.

But the way over the wall is not the only hurdle.

Several Palestinians suffered broken bones after falling from the top of the wall on Wednesday, the Palestinian Red Crescent said.

At checkpoints throughout East Jerusalem, the Old City and the many entrances to the mosque compound, Israeli police routinely stop people, particularly young men, and demand to see their IDs. Those who lack the proper papers can be arrested.

Mr Naser’s strategy is to try to fit in.

“There are things that can tell the police whether you’re from the West Bank or not,” said Mr Naser, a 25-year-old bank teller. “They can tell if you’re scared by your face, they can tell by the wrinkles on your forehead. And they know it from your shoes.”

In the West Bank, young men prefer jeans, button-down shirts and don’t wear many brand names, he said. In Jerusalem, style is dominated by athleisure, running shoes and a cornucopia of brands.

“Clothing style plays a big part in avoiding getting caught,” he said. “It’s not 100 percent protective, but it helps a lot.”

Jamal Karame, 53, said he was convicted 13 years ago of housing a wanted person and jailed for two years. He denies the allegation.

Since then he has not been allowed to enter Jerusalem and every time he goes to a checkpoint he is turned away. So he sneaked over.

“The occupation needs to give people a chance to live their lives so people don’t have backlash,” Mr. Karame, an electrician from Hebron. “It’s bad enough that we’re already under occupation, but you’re also preventing me from praying in Al Aqsa.”

As he paces the grounds, his fingers move rapidly through a string of white prayer beads. Silver etching of the Kaaba or the Prophet’s Mosque in Medina is placed on each bead. He remembered how his father took him to the mosque to play when he was a child. Back then, the journey took less than an hour and there were no checkpoints.

He wishes he could bring his own six children here with the same ease.

“If we don’t pray in Al Aqsa,” he said, “then who?”

Myra Noveck and Gaby Sobelman contributed reporting.

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