Religion and politics during Ramadan in Jerusalem

Why travel from Nablus to Ramallah only to get stuck at the Qalandia checkpoint for a couple of hours, pass through, take another bus to Jerusalem and then do all of it again in one day? What’s the tradeoff for this humiliation?

By R. Khazen

Border Police officers stand in front of Palestinian as they wait to cross from the Qalandiya checkpoint outside Ramallah, West Bank, into Jerusalem to attend the Ramadan Friday Prayers in Al-Aqsa Mosque, July 26, 2013. (Photo: Activestills.org)
Border Police officers stand in front of Palestinian as they wait to cross from the Qalandiya checkpoint outside Ramallah, West Bank, into Jerusalem to attend the Ramadan Friday Prayers in Al-Aqsa Mosque, July 26, 2013. (Photo: Activestills.org)

Where are all the masses coming from? I asked myself as my eyes tried to cope with the great number of people heading east. Thousands of men, mostly bearded and wearing galabiyas (a traditional Arab garment) conquered the streets, some with pants underneath and some without, some leading one woman behind them and some with more. Some women were carrying babies, others portable chairs, but none without a headscarf. The hijab was the rule, while khimars were the exception (a khimar leaves only a thin slot for the eyes). It was only the second time that I’ve seen a khimar; I’m not sure when the first was.

Being slightly overwhelmed by the extraordinary scene, it took me a couple of seconds to figure out what was going on; thanks to Ramadan (the Islamic holy month) Israel issues entry permits to hundreds of thousands of West Bank Palestinians. But why would they do this, I asked myself. After 46 years of occupation, a semi-embargo, continuous settlement construction, the looting of natural resources and grave human rights abuses for to 2.6 million Palestinians in the West Bank, why would the “Jews,” as the occupied people call them, decide to be generous enough to allow so many West Bank Palestinians to enter? To pray at Al-Aqsa mosque in Jerusalem during the holy month? Isn’t this the same mosque that sparked the second Intifada? Aren’t these the same prayers that “threaten the security of Israel” to such an extent that the Jewish state was forced to relinquish its “democratic values” for the sake of that eight-letter word, security?

Palestinian visitors from the West Bank break their fasting at Al-Aqsa mosque in East Jerusalem, July 15, 2013. (Photo: Ahmad Al-Bazz/Activestills.org)
Palestinian visitors from the West Bank break their fasting at Al-Aqsa mosque in East Jerusalem, July 15, 2013. (Photo: Ahmad Al-Bazz/Activestills.org)

The masses were heading toward the Qalandia border crossing; every Jerusalem-Ramallah commuter’s nightmare, or I might say, all those except for Israeli settlers. The Qalandia checkpoint has the heaviest flow of people and to add insult to injury, it intersects traffic on one of the only two roads that enter Ramallah. Excluding the northern and less important entrance, the only way to enter Ramallah (the most economically important city in the West Bank) is through this bottleneck. With only one lane feeding into it, Qalandia creates some of the biggest traffic jams you’ll ever see.

Getting closer to the checkpoint, I begin to hear the different Palestinian accents – stretching from Nablus to Jenin. Mini-bus drivers shout out their destinations to attract passengers. It is a complete standstill. Buses were dropping off passengers half a kilometer before the checkpoint, leaving the masses to cross the border by foot. Even at midnight, herds of people were still walking among cars, occupying the motorway towards Ramallah. Who would do this by choice? Who would travel from Nablus to Ramallah, bypassing at least a few dozens of settlements only to get stuck at the border point for a couple of hours, pass through, take another bus to Jerusalem and do all of it again in one day? What is the tradeoff for this humiliation?

Palestinians arrive to Qalandiya checkpoint outside Ramallah, West Bank, to cross into Jerusalem to attend the Ramadan Friday Prayers in Al-Aqsa Mosque, July 19, 2013. (Photo: Nidal Elwan/ Activestills.org)
Palestinians arrive to Qalandiya checkpoint outside Ramallah, West Bank, to cross into Jerusalem to attend the Ramadan Friday Prayers in Al-Aqsa Mosque, July 19, 2013. (Photo: Nidal Elwan/ Activestills.org)

I realize that we’re talking about Jerusalem’s Al-Aqsa Mosque, the third holiest site in Islam. But when did Palestinians become so religious? Has 46 years of occupation been sufficient to render them so? Are they doing it purely for religious reasons, for pilgrimage? Or is it just an opportunity to hang out in Jerusalem? Each of these pilgrims has his own experience with the Israeli occupation, from being imprisoned to losing a family member, or merely suffering from all the daily repercussions of living under occupation. We have all heard of the administrative and security detentions generously handed to Palestinians. But who cares about the occupied people! What’s forever more intriguing is the mind of the occupier; Israel gave out permits irrespective of almost any and all “security prohibitions” during Ramadan. Aren’t these folks supposed to pose a grave danger?

By the end of the day, I found myself contemplating it all and sighing: Seriously? Religion? Is this how a nation ought to fight occupation? Cui bono?

R. Khazen is an American-born Palestinian citizen of Israel.