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The entire Muslim world celebrates Ramadan, but Palestinians seem ordained to dread its arrival. For weeks, Israel’s intimidation machine has been preparing both its citizens and the world for tensions in Jerusalem during the holy fasting month, which this year coincided with the Jewish holiday of Passover. We also had to commence our fasting knowing that Itamar Ben Gvir, the far-right national security minister and Temple Mount activist, was in charge of maintaining “order” around Al-Aqsa Mosque, the third holiest site in Islam and the heart of Palestinians’ religious and political identity.
Israel’s scare tactics even affected me, a far-from-devout Muslim, who loves this special month for its festivities, family gatherings, and community joys. The only thing left to see was the intensity of the violence to come. How much blood would be spilled? How many worshippers would be arrested? What price would Palestinian Jerusalemites be forced to pay for the government’s arrogance?
The Israeli authorities didn’t disappoint. In the first week of Ramadan, Israeli Border Police broke into Al-Aqsa Mosque and assaulted worshippers during the fajr (dawn) prayer, which marks the beginning of the daily fast. A week later, Mohammed Al-Osaibi, an Arab citizen and doctor from the town of Hura in the Naqab/Negev, was murdered by 11 bullets at the Chain Gate (Bab al-Silsela) in Jerusalem’s Old City. The cops claim that he carried out an attack, yet gave no proof or evidence to back it up — despite the area being one of the most heavily surveilled in the country. The Palestinian community in Israel, from the north to the south, protested and called for a general strike.
Then came the grim sights from Al-Aqsa last week: chilling footage of Border Police unleashing their fury on Muslim worshippers, injuring dozens of people with batons and stun grenades. The police did not spare journalists covering the events, either, and beat them up too. Videos showing hundreds of detainees handcuffed and bruised, humiliated by officers who yelled at them to “put their heads down,” instilled fear and anger among many Palestinians.
Israeli TV news studios were overrun by hasbara troops regurgitating the line that “Hamas sent these young men to the mosque” to stir up trouble. Those same mouthpieces openly wondered why the youth were in the mosque that night anyway, and why they had stones and fireworks with them.
The answers are simple, if they cared to look. First, there is a common ritual, particularly during Ramadan, involving a continuous night of prayer inside mosques from the evening until the morning. It is called “i’tikaaf,” which means seclusion or disconnection from the outside world. During the fasting month, Al-Aqsa’s carers prepare for this regular ceremony, organizing mattresses, blankets, food, and drinks for hundreds of worshippers every night. It is not by chance that the confrontations with the Israeli police occurred late at night and early in the morning, when global and local media presence is at a low ebb; the main documentation available of the attacks is that taken on the phone cameras of worshippers and residents living in the neighborhood of the mosque.
The sticks, stones, and fireworks that the Palestinians kept inside the mosque indicate that they were expecting the police’s violent invasion of the mosque; it has been witnessed many times before, especially during Passover, as increasing numbers of Jewish visitors ascend the compound, often associated with extremist settler groups. To be sure, having such objects inside the mosque is not a pretty sight — but a massive raid of police armed with stun grenades, batons, and guns is far more shocking and far more egregious to the mosque’s sanctity. It is clear which way the balance of power leans.
The police claimed that a “handful” of extremist worshippers barricaded the mosque and took hundreds of innocent worshippers captive. But if that was the case, why did the number of detainees reach almost 400? There were so many that the police tagged them with numbers on their bodies in a humiliating parade through the Old City. The police even claimed that they had to break into the mosque in order to allow the dawn prayers; this, too, is far-fetched.
The second reason why hasbarists were wrong is that, when it comes to Al-Aqsa, there is no Hamas or Fatah, Muslim or Christian, secular or religious — there are only Palestinians, united around their right to this holy place. We saw these young people successfully protest Israeli metal detectors surrounding the mosque in 2017, and we saw them lead the struggles against dispossession in the neighborhoods of Sheikh Jarrah, Silwan, Issawiya, and the Shuafat refugee camp. Jerusalem’s Palestinians realized a long time ago that they are on their own when it comes to fighting the occupation, and it is impossible for any single faction to appropriate their struggle.
I was reminded of this last week when I called a family friend, Elias, to wish him a happy Easter. The holiday greeting, an established custom between Christian and Muslim neighbors, developed into a discussion about the political situation in the country.
“I’m a Christian [by origin],” he said, “I don’t believe in any religion. My family members are angry that I don’t participate in our Easter prayers at the Church of the Annunciation in Nazareth. But I see what soldiers and police officers are doing to the worshippers at Al-Aqsa, and I’m seething with rage, as a Palestinian. What kind of fool expects restraint and self-control in the face of security officers who enter the mosque? The people have the right to protect the place, by any means at hand.”
He continued: “Imagine Christians praying in the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, and soldiers invaded in the middle of the night to force them out. Would anyone have a problem with the worshippers if they grabbed sand from the boxes, picked up the lit candles or heavy statues of Jesus or the holy books, and took on the soldiers’ clubs and guns? Would anyone call these faithful Christians ‘terrorists?’”
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This is when I bitterly realized how much Israel has truly ruined Ramadan for us Palestinians. Instead of arguing about the shallowness of the month’s new TV series, enjoying spring break with our children, working shorter days, or grumbling in family WhatsApp groups about the extra hours women spend making food; instead of joking with Jewish friends about inviting them to large collective meals full of vegan options; instead of giving attention to the mental and spiritual wellbeing that should come at this time of year — I, and many like me, are made to fear this holy month.
It should be clear to anyone with a modicum of common sense that if the Israeli police, and those who sent them, would just leave Al-Aqsa alone, and let the Waqf and the local community manage the place without the provocations of fundamentalist Jews seeking to overturn the order on the compound, that thousands of Muslim worshippers would pray and return home in peace. Let us live and experience this city without terror. Let us lead a normal life. But in the shadow of the occupation, and with this messianic and arrogant leadership that the Jewish state has chosen for itself, that normal life is moving further away from us every day.
This article first appeared in Hebrew on Local Call, read it here. Translation by Sol Salbe of the Middle East News Service, Melbourne, Australia.