Ramadan: restrictions to prayer under occupation

By EA Sandra, Jerusalem

On June 18, Muslims all over the world, including in Palestine and Israel, started the holy month of Ramadan. During this month Muslims fast during the light hours of the day in solidarity with the suffering of the poor and they dedicate themselves to prayers. As Jerusalem is the third holiest city for Muslims, many Palestinians wish to visit the Holy City to pray.

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Normally the Israeli authorities require that Palestinians apply for a permit to access East Jerusalem where the Al Aqsa Mosque Compound is situated, and which forms part of occupied Palestine. But this year, the Israeli Civil Administration announced it would ease the restrictions for those wishing to make the journey. Women and girls of all ages, men over the age of 40 and boys under 12 were to be allowed to cross the checkpoints without a specifically issued permit.

Though the exception was to apply only on Fridays during Ramadan, it would still be easy to accept the Israeli narrative here and feel relief that some easing of restrictions on access to worship have been granted. Even the centre-left Israeli newspaper Haaretz referred to the temporary easing as “perks” and stated in an article that, “Israel has cancelled more goodwill gestures granted to the Palestinians for the month-long Ramadan fast period following Tuesday night’s rocket fire from the Gaza Strip into Israel.”

Rocket fire is not good – but the Palestinian narrative is not one of needing “perks” or “goodwill gestures”. Palestinians ask if it should be considered a “perk” to be allowed to apply for a permit to visit a family member in East Jerusalem during Ramadan or Eid.

The narrative we hear from Palestinians crossing into East Jerusalem is rather one of people in an occupied land not being allowed to move freely, particularly to move freely to pray even at this holy time. One man told us, “even going to prayer in our own land, we are treated like cattle”.

More people were allowed to pass without permits, but ID cards were still checked, people were still turned back, young children had to stand in metal corridors and get through turnstiles, and children had to see their parents argue their right to pass with police and soldiers. People had to go home after being told they were the right age, but that there was a problem with someone in their family. They were not given a proper explanation.

This is not to say that people were not delighted to be able to pass to pray. There were plenty of excited and relieved faces among those who were allowed in. One man told us he had not been able to visit Jerusalem for 15 years, despite having been born there. Many others told us that this was their first ever trip to the Holy City.

In all the circumstances, however, the checkpoints are tense. The lines are long, the expectations are high and the frustration of being rejected for no apparent reason can be heartfelt for fasting Palestinians.

A Palestinian man after being turned back from the checkpoint into East Jerusalem during Ramadan [Photo: EAPPI/S.Horne]

A Palestinian man after being turned back from the checkpoint into East Jerusalem during Ramadan [Photo: EAPPI/S.Horne]


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Not allowed through but waiting to pray [Photo: EAPPI/S.Horne]

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EA Marie talks to a woman who was waiting to see if her husband was allowed through the men’s line before attempting to pass through the women’s line herself. He was turned back. [Photo: EAPPI/S.Horne]

In the first two weeks, unfortunately, several violent attacks took place at checkpoints and in East Jerusalem. On the first Friday of Ramadan a Palestinian man stabbed and injured a soldier.

During the following week, three similar incidents took place, and Palestinians feared that the restrictions would become more severe as they bore the repercussions for the actions of a violent few.

And they did. On July 3, the age limit for men to pass without a permit was raised from 40 to 50, and instead of all women being allowed, only women over 30 could pass without a permit. This was widely seen as collective punishment.  One Palestinian man asked, “Where does it say in the Torah, the Koran or the Bible that you have to be over 50 to pray?”

The first week of the new restrictions there was considerable confusion, particularly among women who had not known about the changes. There were no notices at the checkpoints.

One young woman at the Bethlehem checkpoint told us, “You know, one woman tried to stab an Israeli soldier here so now they think we are all terrorists. We just want to pray and we will try again and again until they let us enter.”

And at that particular checkpoint, the rules were then ignored and all women were allowed through.

In East Jerusalem, at Qalandia checkpoint, this soldier was working hard to tell women under 30 they could not come through!

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Crowds waiting to pass into East Jerusalem at the checkpoint [Photo:EAPPI/M.Lund-Johansen]

And on the third Friday of Ramadan a tragedy occurred. A young Palestinian man was shot dead by an Israeli officer near Qalandiya checkpoint in occupied East Jerusalem. The young man had been throwing stones at the army vehicle and it seems that the officer stepped out and shot him. This shooting has attracted widespread media attention, in Israel and internationally, in part because of the sad story of the victim’s family (he is the third son to be killed by the Israeli military) and in part because of a view that the officer’s action was hugely disproportionate. The Israeli human rights organisation B’Tselem has published video footage of the incident.

EAPPI monitored the two main checkpoints, in Qalandia and Bethlehem, used by Palestinians coming to the Old City in East Jerusalem to pray in the Al Aqsa Mosque Compound. We stood for seven hours each Friday at both checkpoints. Despite the tensions and difficulties, it was a privilege to be present while the Palestinians persist in exercising their right to pray at their holy place.

And there was joy at this holy time.

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A volunteer hands out snacks to break the fast at sundown [Photo: EAPPI/M.Lund-Johansen]

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An Iftar street party near in East Jerusalem [Photo: EAPPI/M.Lund-Johansen]

This poster put up by the Jerusalem Municipality (run by the Israeli authorities) wishing a Happy Ramadan was not appreciated by all in the circumstances. Most had been removed by the end of the first day!

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[Photo: EAPPI/S.Horne]

NOTE: Movement restrictions that impede access to religious institutions – and that are not necessary for the maintenance of public order – infringe on the rights of the Palestinian population to freedom of religion and worship, according to article 46 of the Hague Regulations, article 58 of the Fourth Geneva Convention, and article 75 of the First Additional Protocol.