Bethan McKernan & Sufia Tahan
The Guardian / March 22, 2203
Bloodshed and hardline Israeli politics raise tensions on eve of Muslim holy month.
In the Old City of Jerusalem and the Palestinian neighbourhoods surrounding it, preparations for Ramadan are under way: strings of festive lights and lanterns are ready to welcome sundown on Thursday, while sweet shops and bakers are busy making qatayef – fried dumplings filled with cream or sweet cheese, traditionally eaten during the Muslim holy month.
The period of fasting that commemorates Gabriel’s revelation of the Qur’an to Muhammad is a time for self-discipline, reflection and celebrations with family and friends. As with almost every religious holiday in the contested city, however, this year Ramadan is accompanied by worries of surging violence.
At least 88 Palestinians, of whom about half were militants and half civilians, and 16 Israelis, of whom 15 were civilians, have been killed since January, according to rights groups, making 2023 the deadliest start to the year in occupied East Jerusalem and the West Bank in two decades. The bloodshed has led to speculation that the region is at the beginning of a third intifada, or Palestinian uprising.
Contrary to popular belief, the Muslim holy month does not necessarily correspond with an upswing in violence, although this year’s convergence with Passover and Easter increases the possibility of friction as Jerusalem hosts an unusually large influx of pilgrims.
The hardline new Israeli government’s unabated appetite for demolishing Palestinian homes in Jerusalem, and a decision earlier this week to repeal a 2005 law ordering the evacuation of four particularly sensitive West Bank settlements, have also inflamed regional tensions. And every year without fail, Ramadan puts Israeli control of Jerusalem’s Temple Mount – known to Muslims as al-Haram al-Sharif or al-Aqsa mosque – under the spotlight.
“I have worked at the Waqf for 50 years and I have seen everything before,” said Azzam al-Kateeb, the director of the Jordanian body responsible for managing the holy complex’s Islamic sites. “Joe Biden told me once that he is glad he doesn’t have my job. But I am quite sure Ramadan this year will be smooth.”
It took two months each year for the Waqf’s 500 employees to prepare for Ramadan, Kateeb said, even with help from volunteers. The logistics of managing access and prayers for hundreds of thousands of people, as well as nightly iftar dinners for up to 10,000, are his immediate concern.
“We have reassurances from the police that they will not interfere and worshippers will be allowed to come to al-Aqsa without problems,” he said. “If anything goes wrong, it is because they decide to let it happen. The police and the Israeli government have control.”
In a statement, Israel’s police said their aim during Ramadan was to “enable the freedom of worship and the proper existence of the holiday, its prayers and customs, while maintaining security, law and public order”, and that extra police and border forces would be deployed around the city.
Many Jerusalemites the Guardian spoke to this week were not optimistic. Rehab – a lively 72-year-old passing the time with neighbours in Bab al-Majlis, in the heart of the Old City – said she had problems walking since she was hit in the leg by an Israeli stun grenade two years ago. “It will be good if we can enjoy the month but I think Ben-Gvir wants an escalation,” she said.
Itamar Ben-Gvir, a Jewish supremacist with a conviction for racist incitement who until recently was shunned by the Israeli mainstream, became Israel’s national security minister three months ago, and is now in charge of policing in the divided city.
The difference was already noticeable, said Aboud, a 30-year-old working at Al Najaf sweet shop near the Church of the Holy Sepulchre. “I am looking forward to the extra Ramadan business, but every day when I leave the house now there’s some kind of trouble with the police, with settlers. I can only see it getting worse,” he said, before using a Palestinian saying: “Who do you complain to when your enemy is the judge?”
Settlers in the Old City, and other devout Jewish Israelis, have visited the Temple Mount in increasing numbers over the last few years. Under a longstanding compromise, they are allowed to visit but not pray at the site, and any perceived attempt to alter the status quo acts as a lightning rod for violence.
Almost immediately after entering office, Ben-Gvir decided to tour the holy complex – a move widely viewed as a provocation and which drew international criticism. Many are worried he will attempt a similar stunt during Ramadan.
“When Ben-Gvir came here he was like a mouse. He stayed for five minutes, surrounded by police, and left again,” Kateeb said. “That’s supposed to worry 2 billion Muslims? It doesn’t bother me at all.”
Bethan McKernan is Jerusalem correspondent for the Guardian
Sufian Taha in Jerusalem