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Israel ponders restricting access to one of Islam's holiest sites for Ramadan

Jewish visitors walk protected by Israeli security forces at the Al-Aqsa mosque compound, also known as the Temple Mount complex to Jews, in Jerusalem on April 9, 2023, during the Muslim holy fasting month of Ramadan, also coinciding with the Jewish Passover holiday.
Ahmad Gharabli
AFP via Getty Images
Jewish visitors walk protected by Israeli security forces at the Al-Aqsa mosque compound, also known as the Temple Mount complex to Jews, in Jerusalem on April 9, 2023, during the Muslim holy fasting month of Ramadan, also coinciding with the Jewish Passover holiday.

TEL AVIV, Israel – The Muslim holy month of Ramadan is always a period of heightened tensions around Jerusalem's Al-Aqsa Mosque, as hundreds of thousands of worshipers line up to enter one of Islam's holiest sites to pray.

But a proposal for new restrictions on worshipers entering the site — also sacred to Jews as the foundation of their ancient temple — by Israel's far-right national security minister has raised tensions at a time when Israel is waging a war in Gaza that has cost tens of thousands of lives, following an attack by Hamas that was the deadliest since Israel's founding.

And Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has not yet dismissed the controversial plan proposed by Itamar Ben-Gvir to limit access to the mosque even more than in previous years.

Ben-Gvir, who lives in a Jewish settlement in the occupied West Bank, said on X, formerly known as Twitter, that Israeli security forces should prevent Palestinian residents from the occupied West Bank from entering the Al-Aqsa Mosque, built on huge stone platform in Jerusalem's Old City and known to Muslims as the Noble Sanctuary and to Jews as the Temple Mount.

The plan would also prohibit Palestinians with Israeli citizenship below the age of 70 from visiting the site during Ramadan, which begins next month.

Ben-Gvir, an ultra-nationalist member of Netanyahu's cabinet, said the restrictions were necessary because "we should not allow residents from the [Palestinian] Authority to enter Israel in any way." Israel "cannot take chances and risks."

Netanyahu's office told NPR the prime minister is "considering Ben-Gvir's opinion on placing restrictions during Ramadan," but added that "there are still no concrete plans."

An earlier statement released by his office said he had "made a balanced decision that allows for religious freedom within the limits of the security needs as established by heads of the security establishment."

The prime minister's office added a note of caution, saying that "any reports to the contrary are false." That reflected fears in Jerusalem that harsher restrictions could lead to a spike in unrest at a highly sensitive time.

Israel is already under mounting international pressure not to push its Gaza offensive into the crowded southern city of Rafah, where more than a million Palestinians who have fled fighting in the Gaza Strip have sought shelter.

The Gaza health ministry said this week that more than 29,000 people have been killed since the start of the war, triggered by an attack on Israel by Hamas on Oct. 7 that killed 1,200 people. Another 240 were taken hostage.

Hamas is still holding 134 hostages and on Sunday, Israeli war cabinet member Benny Gantz issued an ultimatum to Hamas: release all the Israelis still captive in Gaza before Ramadan or "the fighting will continue everywhere, to include the Rafah area."

A full-scale land invasion of Rafah would be a humanitarian disaster "beyond imagination," said Dr. Teresa Zakaria, the World Health Organization's incident manager for the conflict in the occupied Palestinian territories.

For its part, the United States insists that Israel needs a credible plan to evacuate the more than a million Palestinians in Rafah before it launches an operation.

And in the West Bank, tensions have also been rising since the start of the Israel-Hamas war in Gaza, with an escalation in attacks by armed Jewish settlers against Palestinians in recent months. In Israel, there remains deep angerover Netanyahu's response to the Oct. 7 attack by Hamas and his failure to bring home all of the hostages.

Backlash to the plan

For worshipers like Rauf Abu Nab, the Ben-Gvir plan would cut off access to the third holiest site in the world for Muslims after Mecca and Medina. As a Jerusalem resident, he would ordinarily be able to attend prayers at the mosque.

"He will not be able to implement this. He is destroying the whole image of Israel," said Abu Nab, 65, as he drove out of Silwan, an East Jerusalem neighborhood that sits in the shadow of the Al-Aqsa compound.

"No one stands in the path of God," he said, before driving off.

Israel has imposed restrictions on access to the compound in the past, including preventing tourists and Jewish Israelis from entering during Ramadan in the years before 2000.

In 2022, restrictions were imposed on most men over 40 from the West Bank, although Israeli security forces allowed women and young children from the occupied West Bank to enter Jerusalem without a permit.

Ben-Gvir's latest proposals have caused consternation in Jerusalem.

Mustafa Abu Sway, a member of the Al-Aqsa Mosque advisory council, said it's disappointing to see the compound being used as political tool.

"It's a rallying point for right and the right of the right of the right [wing] in terms of extremism. It's nationalism in a very twisted sense. It's a mosque, a Noble Sanctuary," said Abu Sway.

"Al Aqsa should have been spared the internal Israeli politics," he added.

Abu Sway points out that the Second Intifada — or uprising — erupted in the aftermath of the September 2000 visit to the Al-Aqsa compound by Ariel Sharon, who at the time was running for prime minister. Riots began the following day, starting a period of unrest that lasted five years. It was a campaign tactic and it worked, said Abu Sway, as Sharon was elected the following year.

Officials from Shin Bet, Israel's domestic intelligence service, declined a request for comment on the national security minister's proposals.

Hamas issued a statement condemning the potential restrictions and called on Palestinians to "reject this criminal decision and go to Al-Aqsa Mosque."

It also issued a warning: should the freedom to worship there be prohibited, "it will not pass without accountability."

Ben-Gvir's proposal has also brought backlash from opposition members within the Israeli government.

Knesset member Ahmad Tibi, chairman of the Hadash-Ta'al party, said Ben-Gvir and Netanyahu were trying to stir unrest among Palestinians. Labor Party Knesset member Gilad Kariv accused the prime minister of "putting the security of the citizens of Israel in danger" by courting far-right elements of his coalition.

Given the acutely tense state of affairs in the region, and with Israel warning of a new offensive in south Gaza during Ramadan, there are fears over any fallout from the new restrictions at the mosque.

"Prohibiting Muslims from praying at Al-Aqsa Mosque is really what could instigate problems ahead," said Abu Sway.

Abeer Zayyad, a historian, archeologist and expert on the Al-Aqsa Mosque, said the restrictions are part of a pattern. She noted that before 2000, tourists and Jewish Israelis weren't allowed into Al Aqsa during Ramadan. Then, they were allowed in for the first 10 days. Then the first 20 days. And such attendance increases the Israeli security presence and raises fears among Muslims that the status of the site is changing.

"But its not about the numbers. It's about the fact that they don't want us," she said.

She said that if the Ben-Gvir plan is enacted, it would create "a dangerous situation."

"I think the whole world is worried about that ... I think even Israelis themselves are worried about that," said Zayyad.

"A raw, nuclear nerve"

Gershon Baskin, an Israeli social and political activist and former hostage negotiator, told NPR that any move to further limit Palestinian access to the Al-Aqsa compound would likely backfire.

He described Al-Aqsa as "a raw, nuclear nerve."

"Anytime someone touches it, it blows up in our face," said Baskin.

The Al-Aqsa Mosque – and all that the compound encompasses, including the Dome of the Rock, believed by Muslims to mark the place where the Prophet Mohammad ascended to heaven, is a "symbol of unity," for Palestinians.

"It's the one place that all Palestinians feel like they have control," said Baskin.

And control is something Palestinians say they now lack in virtually all elements of their lives – as Israeli security restrictions have increased in the aftermath of Oct. 7.

Zayyad said she feared every step in this conflict - even ones taken outside Gaza - will "take us to a different level and a different situation."

"None of us knows where this will end. It's going to be a very tough year in Jerusalem."

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D. Parvaz
D. Parvaz is an editor at Weekend Edition. Prior to joining NPR, she worked at several news organizations covering wildfires, riots, earthquakes, a nuclear meltdown, elections, political upheaval and refugee crises in several countries.