During Ramadan, Palestinians excluded from Aqsa turn to traffickers

JERUSALEM – Only moonlight broke through the darkness early one morning when a smuggler led Husam Misk up a ladder leaning against Israel’s concrete separation barrier.

Mr. Misk, a 27-year-old dentist, said he quickly climbed the ladder but was still short of the top of the 26-foot wall. He grabbed the edge where the barbed wire had been cut and lifted himself, pausing briefly to examine the area. No signs of soldiers.

He grabbed the rope dangling on the other side, put his feet against the wall and ducked down.

About an hour later, Mr. Misk said, he entered the Al Aqsa mosque complex in Jerusalem just in time to hear the dawn prayers. Barred from legally entering Jerusalem from his home in the West Bank, he was one of many Palestinians who resorted to other means to visit one of Islam’s holiest sites during the holy month of Ramadan.

“I am convinced that I pray and have solidarity,” said Mr. Misk, sitting in the shade of a tree in the Aqsa complex on a recent afternoon. “Because Al Aqsa is the center of the struggle between us and the Israelis.”

The Israeli government, which generally prevents West Bank residents from entering Jerusalem without permission, usually loosens restrictions to allow hundreds of thousands of people to visit Al Aqsa during Ramadan. Children up to the age of 12, women and men aged 50 and over can participate in Friday prayers without permission. Men aged 40 to 50 can enter with a valid permit.

But most young people and those with a criminal record are turned back at official crossing points or denied entry permits. While Palestinians argue such restrictions are discriminatory, Israeli officials continue to falter a series of Palestinian attacks who killed 14 people starting just before Ramadan, insist that security measures are necessary.

Many Palestinians denied entry – hundreds a day, those who cross say – instead scale the controversial separation barrier, walk through cut openings where the barrier is a metal fence, or walk through mountainous terrain where there are cracks in the barrier. Others make medical appointments to get medical permits to enter Jerusalem, or bribe Jewish soldiers or settlers to get them through checkpoints, according to the people who used these methods.

Some stream their travels to encourage other Palestinians to follow their path.

While respondents who circumvented the rules said they came to Aqsa to pray or pay homage to the historic site, Israeli officials said the unmonitored entrances posed a potential security threat.

Hundreds of Palestinians, mostly young people, have been arrested in the mosque in the past two weeks, accused of unrest. A police spokesman said “a handful” of those arrested entered Israel illegally.

Over the past two years, during the coronavirus pandemic, security along the 440-mile barrier has become weaker and openings in the fence have multiplied.

Recent Palestinian attacks have focused the government’s attention on security holes. Israeli authorities identified one of the attackers, a gunman who killed five people in a Tel Aviv suburb last month, as a West Bank resident who had illegally entered Israel.

Prime Minister Naftali Bennett, speaking of the gaps in the barrier at a cabinet meeting this month, acknowledged “that it has been completely riddled with holes for years.”

Since then, the Israeli military has strengthened security along the fence, repairing breaches, digging trenches to prevent vehicles from crossing, and deploying more soldiers. And the Israeli security cabinet has approved more than $ 100 million to build another 25 miles of the barrier.

The struggle for some Palestinians to reach Al Aqsa is part of a larger confrontation for control of the mosque complex – known to Jews as the Temple Mount, the site of an ancient temple and the holiest site in Judaism – and the ancient heart of Jerusalem, known as the Old City.

Israel captured the Old City from Jordan in 1967, along with the rest of East Jerusalem. Israel has since annexed the area as part of its capital, but much of the world, including the United Nations Security Council, considers it occupied territory. .

Palestinians see East Jerusalem as the future capital of a Palestinian state. Some fear the mosque complex is below threat by a growing number of Jewish faithful allowed to enter and pray at the top of the mountain, and by a fringe group of right-wing activists trying to rebuild the Jewish temple there.

The tension explodes clashes in the last two weeks between Palestinians and Israeli paramilitary police. At times, the police forced Palestinians to leave parts of the site or confined them to mosques to ensure access for tourists and Jewish faithful.

On Friday, Israeli authorities pushed back throngs of Palestinians, mostly men, traveling from the West Bank to attend Friday prayers in Al Aqsa.

Israeli authorities did not answer questions about how many Palestinians from the West Bank and Gaza had asked to visit the mosque this Ramadan or how many had been turned down.

For young people in particular, Aqsa seems out of reach. Ibrahim, a 24-year-old university student from Bethlehem, compared an Israeli permit to a golden ticket: “It’s like Willy Wonka, few get it.”

Ibrahim, who did not want to publish his surname, legally enters Jerusalem with a medical permit, then visits Al Aqsa. For him, travel is not about religion. It is about visiting an important place for Palestinian identity and calmly facing the Israeli occupation.

“You’ve got the police and security guards in there, but I can still get in,” he said. “It’s about affirming our existence.”

Mr. Misk applied for a permit in 2015, when he was in college, and was turned down. He said he was only told that his refusal was “for security reasons”.

The following week he went with a smuggler and hasn’t bothered to ask for another permit since.

“Going to Mecca to visit the Kaaba is easier for us than coming here to Al Aqsa,” he said. “If I want to go to Mecca, I apply for a visa and go. But if I want to come to Al Aqsa, I have to take a risk and go over the wall and I could be shot and killed ”.

One day this month, Mr. Misk tried to enter Israel with some friends through a wooden area and was captured by Israeli soldiers. The soldiers tied their hands behind their backs and made them lie face down on the ground for six hours, he said, before taking them back to the West Bank and releasing them.

The next day he paid a smuggler $ 15 to get him through the barrier.

While Mousa Naser recently waited his turn to scale the wall, dozens of men who had crossed before him were captured on the other side. When the soldiers took the men away, Mr. Naser and others rushed.

But overcoming the wall is not the only obstacle.

On Wednesday, several Palestinians reported broken bones after falling from the top of the wall, the Palestinian Red Crescent said.

At checkpoints throughout East Jerusalem, in the Old City and at the numerous entrances to the mosque complex, Israeli police regularly stop people, especially young people, and ask to see their identity documents. Those who do not have the necessary paperwork can be arrested.

Mr. Naser’s strategy is to try to blend in.

“There are things that can let the police know if you are from the West Bank or not,” said Mr. Naser, a 25-year-old bank employee. “They can tell from your face if there is fear, they can tell from the wrinkles on your forehead. And they know it from your shoes. “

In the West Bank, young people prefer jeans, buttoned shirts and don’t wear many brands, he said. In Jerusalem, the style is dominated by athleisure, running shoes and a cornucopia of brands.

“The style of the clothes plays a big role in not getting caught,” she said. “It doesn’t protect 100 percent, but it helps a lot.”

Jamal Karame, 53, said he was convicted 13 years ago of hosting a wanted person and was jailed for two years. Hey denies the accusation.

He has since been unable to obtain a permit to come to Jerusalem, and every time he goes to a roadblock he is turned away. So he decided to sneak in.

“The occupation must give people a chance to live their lives so that people don’t get feedback,” Mr. Karame, a Hebron-based electrician. “It’s bad enough that we’re already living under occupation, but you’re also stopping me from praying in Al Aqsa.”

As he walks around the complex, his fingers quickly move through a string of white rosaries. On each pearl there is a silver engraving of the Kaaba or the Prophet’s Mosque in Medina. He recalled how, when he was a child, his father used to take him to play in the enclosure of the mosque. Back then the journey took less than an hour and there were no roadblocks.

He wishes he could bring his six children here as easily.

“If we don’t pray to Al Aqsa,” he said, “who will?”

Myra Novec Other Gabby Sobelman contributed to the report.

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