Israeli forces restrict access to Al-Aqsa during first Friday prayers of Ramadan

MEE Staff

Middle East Eye  /  March 24, 2023

Israeli forces impose strict search on young men, while drones and helicopters circle Dome of the Rock.

The atmosphere on the roads leading to Al-Aqsa Mosque during the first Friday of Ramadan, one of the holiest days for Muslims, was in stark contrast to previous days.

Israeli forces blocked roads towards the holy site in East Jerusalem, where over 100,000 Muslim worshippers – friends and families – came to pray. 

Drones and helicopters circled in the sky above the Dome of the Rock. 

In the narrow streets and markets of the Old City, leading towards Al-Aqsa, Israeli forces equipped with teargas canisters were seen stopping young men from entering.

Women of all ages were allowed to enter, as well as men above the age of 55, but all young men were stopped at the gates and searched. 

At the Qalandia checkpoint, Israeli forces stopped hundreds of people from entering the holy site, causing a backlog of traffic. 

Around the gates of Al-Aqsa, Israeli forces, some undercover, could be seen filming worshippers and using binoculars for surveillance. 

Farah Erakat, a Palestinian from Abu Dis, said that Israeli forces made it challenging for people to reach the site. 

“There have been roadblocks all over and people don’t feel a sense of freedom here. The allowances for women to enter were only for Friday prayers. But typically, it’s very hard for everyone from the West Bank to come,” she told Middle East Eye.

“My sister got stopped and questioned. Every time someone is stopped it ruins their day. Buses have been stopped from getting to certain points.”

Ramadan is the holiest month in the Islamic calendar and, undeterred, Palestinians streamed through the various entrances of Al-Aqsa and lined up to pray.

“Police have surrounded our shops and are stopping everyone walking by. It’s usually the young men that get stopped here,” explained Nadia, who owns a shop on Al-Wad street in the Old City, close to Al-Aqsa. 

‘A special experience’ 

The streets surrounding Al-Aqsa were decorated with lanterns and string lights in anticipation of the holy month, which is marked by Muslims around the world. 

Khadija, who is originally from Nablus and works in a shop close to Al-Aqsa, told MEE: “There is no experience in the world like Ramadan at Al-Aqsa. It’s special.”

In the streets of the Old City, lines formed outside shops selling everything from pickles to fresh bread and syrup-soaked sweets. Ramadan lanterns also lined streets, adding colour to the markets.

“Al-Aqsa is a unique place in Ramadan, the young people are what make it,” said Erakat. “Before the start of Ramadan, women from all over Palestine came to clean the courtyards, which shows how important it is to us.”

Prior to the start of the holy month, the trees in the surrounding gardens were given a fresh coat of white paint and the floors were cleaned. During Friday prayers, Palestinian scouts were deployed to help assist people and manage the crowds.

Storming of Damascus Gate

After worshippers broke their fast at sunset, hundreds flocked to Damascus Gate, which has been decorated for the holy month. 

The site has become a main focal point for Palestinians to gather and socialise after evening prayers. 

Carts of street food selling everything from fava beans to corn on the cob lined the streets, while people ran to find a spot on the stairs. Tea was flowing and music blaring from all directions, with people chanting and singing in elation.

On Thursday, the celebrations were cut short after Israeli forces stormed the crowds of people, at 12.30 am. 

“This dispersal is all about the Palestinian consumption of space,” one woman told MEE

“Yesterday, Israeli forces attacked people at Damascus Gate for no reason. People were just singing and enjoying their time. Just our presence bothers them,” said Erakat.

Videos shared online showed people being beaten and carts being kicked and taken apart, as people ran to find their loved ones. 

Throughout the evening, Israeli forces were stationed around the steps leading towards Damascus Gate, some undercover. Other forces were deployed at the watchtowers at the gates.

Following the storming of the crowds, families scrambled to find safety and reunite with their friends and family.