In Jerusalem, Ramadan Restrictions Last Seen During the Crusades Return

JERUSALEM — The last time Muslim worshipers were kept out of the Aqsa Mosque compound throughout the entire month of Ramadan was when crusaders controlled Jerusalem in the Middle Ages.

Now, the coronavirus pandemic has done what the intervening centuries had not: largely emptying the often crowded and chaotic spaces of Islam’s third holiest site, where Muslims believe the Prophet Muhammad ascended to heaven.

The restricted entry to the compound is only one example of how the pandemic has radically transformed the way Muslims in Israel and the Palestinian Territories have experienced the sacred fasting month of Ramadan as they cope with government social distancing measures.

Instead of attending elaborate fast-breaking feasts with extended family members and smoking water pipes at thronged cafes, Arab citizens of Israel and Palestinians have spent much of their time in unwelcome isolation.

Standing outside one of the shuttered entrances to the Aqsa compound, Mohammed Suleiman, a school security guard from Jerusalem, held back tears as he spoke about his desire to pray at the mosque.

“The Aqsa is healthy, but we aren’t,” said Mr. Suleiman, clutching a green and red prayer mat. “I hope we can return to it soon because I feel lonely without it.”

In April, the Islamic Waqf, the Jordanian-backed religious body that administers the mosque compound, decided to close the site to the public throughout Ramadan, citing public health concerns.

The Aqsa, which Jews revere as their holiest site and refer to as the Temple Mount, is often at the center of tensions between Israelis and Palestinians.

In one of the few large open spaces near the Aqsa compound last week, some 30 worshipers, including Mr. Suleiman, gathered under the blazing sun for traditional Friday afternoon prayers, while keeping a distance of several feet between each other. Nearby, a large contingent of Israeli police officers stood guard.

While the Aqsa has been closed to the Muslim public, the imams who work there have continued to deliver sermons in it, livestreaming over Facebook special Ramadan evening prayers, known as taraweeh, as well as Friday afternoon prayers. Tens of thousands of social media users have viewed the broadcasts.

Other organizations have also been providing online content to Muslims during this Ramadan like no other.

“Ramadan Nights from Jerusalem,” a coalition of Israeli and Palestinian organizations, has created a website featuring daily virtual events about Islam, the fasting month and Arabic culture in Arabic, Hebrew and English.

On the site, thousands have tuned into a wide range of programs like a lesson on how to prepare kibbe, deep-fried balls of ground meat and bulgur; a lecture about the sayings of the Prophet Muhammad; and an oud concert.

“We want to provide Muslims with diverse and rich content to engage during the month,” said Dr. Raquel Ukeles, a co-founder of the project and the curator of the National Library of Israel’s Islam and Middle East collection. “But we also want to create opportunities for non-Muslims to learn about Islam and Ramadan.”

Less than a mile from the Aqsa, the decades-old Jaafar Sweets shop in Jerusalem has witnessed a sharp decline in business during the fasting month, selling about half as much as it did in 2019. The Israeli government has allowed sweets shops in Jerusalem to be open for takeout orders only, and the shop’s large seating section was empty.

“During Ramadan, we usually have people from everywhere enjoying our sweets, but we now only have a fraction of that,” said Adnan Jaafar, the third-generation owner of the shop, sitting near a display of baklava, knafeh — an Arabic dessert made with shredded phyllo dough — and other sugary delights.

Perhaps the most significant change at Jaafar Sweets is that it has removed from its menu of offers qatayef, a sweet and heavy Ramadan dessert, a fried pancake that is ordinarily filled with either walnuts or cheese.

“It’s the first time in 70 years we aren’t selling them,” Mr. Jaafar said. “There aren’t enough customers to justify the effort to make them.”

More than 16,500 people in Israel are known to have been infected by the virus and 264 have died. In the West Bank and Gaza Strip, 375 cases have been reported with two fatalities.

As the days of Ramadan have progressed, several Palestinians and Arab citizens of Israel have started to object to the decision to close the Aqsa to the public, with some arguing that if Jews can pray in a socially distanced manner at the Western Wall just below it, Muslims can do the same in the compound.

“It makes no sense,” said Ribhi Rajabi, a truck driver from Jerusalem, sitting in the shade under an olive tree by his home in the city. “If the Jews can pray without a problem in a small area, we obviously can in a space several times the size.”

In early May, Israel loosened restrictions on prayer at the Western Wall, allowing as many 300 people to go there.

But Omar Kiswani, the director of the Aqsa, has fiercely defended the decision to keep the compound closed worshipers, arguing that preserving the faithful’s health is paramount.

“During Ramadan, the Aqsa is not like any other place here,” he said, sitting on a bench in Jerusalem’s Old City while clad in a long black cloak with gold trimmings and a red Ottoman hat wrapped in a white scarf. “People come in the tens of thousands and sometimes the hundreds of thousand. If we allow everyone inside now, we run the risk of infecting our whole society.”

The site hasn’t been closed to the Muslim public throughout Ramadan since the 12th century when the city was in the hands of crusaders, according to experts and Mr. Kiswani.

“It’s stayed open through invasions, wars and plagues,” said Martin Kramer, the chair of Islamic studies at Shalem College in Jerusalem. “It’s precisely at such times that people sought to pray.”

On several occasions, Israel has closed the Aqsa for short periods of time in the wake of attacks against Israeli security personnel as well as confrontations between them and Muslim worshipers. After three Arab citizens of Israel killed two police officers guarding an entrance to the site in 2017, Israeli authorities shuttered the compound for about two days.

While the closing of the Aqsa compound is upsetting for those used to praying there, what many will miss most this year is an opportunity that comes during Eid al-Fitr, the three-day festival that marks the conclusion of Ramadan.

Israel usually allows tens of thousands of Palestinians from the West Bank to visit its cities during Eid al-Fitr — one of two holidays every year in which it hands out a large number of travel permits.

“This holiday is one of my only chances to walk on the beach, drink coffee with a view of the sea and eat fish and shrimp at the Jaffa port,” said Abdelrazzaq Abumeizer, a development consultant from Hebron, a landlocked city in the southern West Bank. “It’s really special because we can’t do any of those things in my hometown.”

An Israeli security official, who spoke on condition of anonymity, said that, as of this week, Israel would not issue permits to Palestinians to visit its territory during Eid al-Fitr.

Mr. Abumeizer said he had been careful to avoid public spaces during the outbreak, but added that he would not hesitate to go to Israel if he received permission.

“It’s not smart to go outside,” he said. “But if I got a pass, I would immediately search for a ride to the sea.”

Mohammed Najib contributed reporting from Ramallah in the West Bank.

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