Palestinians prepare for Ramadaan in sombre mood

Al-Aqsa mosque compound in Jerusalem's Old City. Picture: Reuters

Al-Aqsa mosque compound in Jerusalem's Old City. Picture: Reuters

Published Mar 12, 2024


Palestinians prepared for Ramadaan in sombre mood with heightened security measures by Israeli police and the spectre of war and hunger in Gaza overshadowing the normally festive Muslim holy month as talks to secure a ceasefire stalled.

Thousands of police have been deployed around the narrow streets of the Old City in Jerusalem, where tens of thousands of worshippers are expected every day at the Al Aqsa mosque compound, one of the holiest sites in Islam.

The area, considered the most sacred place by Jews who know it as Temple Mount, has been a longstanding flashpoint for trouble and was one of the starting points of the last war in 2021 between Israel and Hamas, the Islamist movement that controls Gaza.

That 10-day conflict has been dwarfed by the current war, which is now in its sixth month. It began on October 7 when thousands of Hamas fighters stormed into Israel, killing some 1 200 people, by Israeli tallies.

Israel's relentless campaign in Gaza has drawn increasing alarm across the world as the growing risk of famine threatens to add to a death toll that has already passed 31 000.

After some confusion last month when hard-right Israeli Security Minister Itamar Ben Gvir said he wanted restrictions on worshippers at Al Aqsa, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said the numbers admitted would be similar to last year.

"This is our mosque and we must take care of it," said Azzam Al-Khatib, director general of the Jerusalem Waqf, the religious foundation that oversees Al Aqsa. "We must protect the presence of Muslims at this mosque, who should be able to enter in big numbers peacefully and safely."

Depending on lunar observations, Ramadaan will begin on Monday or Tuesday this week. But in contrast to previous years, the usual decorations around the Old City have not been put up and there was a similar sombre tone in towns across the occupied West Bank, where around 400 Palestinians have been killed in clashes with security forces, or Jewish settlers since the start of the war.

“We decided this year that the Old City of Jerusalem won’t be decorated out of respect for the blood of our children and the elders and the martyrs,” said Ammar Sider, a community leader in the Old City.

Police said they were working to ensure a peaceful Ramadaan and had taken extra measures to crack down on what they described as provocative and distorted information on social media networks and had arrested 20 people suspected of incitement to terrorism.

"The Israel Police will continue to act and allow for the observance of Ramadaan prayers safely on the Temple Mount, while maintaining security and safety in the area," police said in a statement.

For the rest of the Muslim world, Israel’s policing of Al Aqsa has long been among the most bitterly resented issues and, last month, Hamas leader Ismail Haniyeh called on Palestinians to march to the mosque at the start of Ramadaan.

Last year, clashes that erupted when police entered the mosque compound drew condemnation from the Arab League as well as Saudi Arabia, with which Israel had been seeking to normalise diplomatic ties, extending its push to build ties with regional powers including the United Arab Emirates.

Hopes for a ceasefire, which would have allowed Ramadaan to pass peacefully and enabled the return of at least some of the 134 Israeli hostages held in Gaza appear to have been disappointed, with talks in Cairo apparently stalled.

In the ruins of Gaza itself, where half the 2.3 million population is squeezed into the southern city of Rafah, the mood was correspondingly sombre.

"We made no preparations to welcome Ramadaan because we have been fasting for five months now," said Maha, a mother of five, who would normally have filled her home with decorations and stocked her refrigerator with supplies for the evening Iftar celebrations when people break their fast.

"There is no food, we only have some canned food and rice, most of the food items are being sold for imaginary high prices," she said via a chat app from Rafah, where she is sheltering with her family.