For the Palestinians, the holiest night of Ramadan begins at the checkpoint

QALANDIYA CHECKPOINT, West Bank (AP) — For many Palestinians, the journey to one of Islam’s holiest sites begins on the holiest night of Ramadan in a dusty, garbage-strewn maelstrom.

Tens of thousands of Palestinian believers from across the occupied West Bank on Monday pushed through a military checkpoint leading to Jerusalem to pray at the Al-Aqsa Mosque for Laylat al-Qadr, or the “Night of Destiny,” when Muslims believe that the Koran was revealed to the Prophet Mohammad centuries ago.

The loud, sweaty crowds at the Qalandiya checkpoint seem chaotic – but there was a system: women on the right; men to the left. Jerusalemites here, people with disabilities there. And the grim-faced men stranded on the corner had endured the long wait, only to be turned away at last.

“I’m not political, I’m just religious, so I thought maybe they’d let me in tonight for Laylat al-Qadr,” said Deia Jamil, a 40-year-old Arabic teacher from the West Bank city of Ramallah.

“But no. ‘Forbidden,'” he said, falling to his knees to pray on the dirt square.

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For Palestinian believers, praying at Islam’s third holiest site is a core part of Ramadan. However, hundreds of thousands are denied legal entry into Jerusalem, with most men under 55 being turned away at checkpoints due to Israeli security restrictions. They often resort to dangerous means to get to the holy site during the fasting month of Ramadan.

As in the past, Israel has eased some restrictions this year, allowing West Bank women and young children to enter Jerusalem without permits. Those between the ages of 45 and 55 with a valid permit can pray on the grounds of Al-Aqsa Mosque – one of the most bitterly disputed holy sites on earth.

Jews revere it as the Temple Mount, home of the Biblical temples, and consider it the holiest site in Judaism. The competing claims are at the heart of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and often escalate into violence.

Israel says it is committed to protecting freedom of religion for all faiths and says controlling Palestinian believers is a key security measure keeping attackers away from Israel. Last month, a Palestinian arriving in Israel from the West Bank village of Nilin opened fire on a busy street in Tel Aviv, killing one Israeli and wounding two others.

But for the Palestinians, the restrictions are taking their toll.

“I feel completely lost,” said Noureddine Odeh, 53, with his backpack hanging off one shoulder. His wife and teenage daughters made it through the checkpoint and abandoned him. That year – a time of increasing violence in the occupied West Bank – Israel raised the age limit for male believers and made him ineligible. “You get dragged around like they’re playing god.”

Israeli authorities did not answer questions about how many Palestinian applications they had rejected from the West Bank and Gaza Strip. But they said that so far this month about 289,000 Palestinians – the majority from the West Bank and a few hundred from Gaza – have visited Jerusalem for prayer.

Earlier this month, Israel announced the start of special Ramadan flights for Palestinians in the West Bank from Ramon Airport in southern Israel. In normal times, Palestinians would have to fly out of neighboring Jordan. But on Monday, days before the end of Ramadan, the Israel Defense Agency, which handles Palestinian civil affairs, said only that the Palestinians “will soon have the option.”

The crowds that swept through Qalandiya during Laylat al-Qadr – one of the most important nights of the year when Muslims ask for prayers to be answered – were so overwhelming that Israeli forces repeatedly closed the barrier. The sudden closures created shortages of people, most of whom had gone without food and water all day. Palestinian Red Crescent medics said at least 30 people collapsed at the checkpoint on a busy Ramadan day.

Elbows pressed into the torsos of strangers and heads tucked under their armpits, five midwifery students who had never left the West Bank conversed with fantasies of Jerusalem. “We’ll buy meat and sweets,” squeaked 20-year-old Sondos Warasna. “And picnic in Al-Aqsa courtyard.”

The limestone courtyard, where Palestinian families fast every night after sundown, was riddled with violence earlier this month as Ramadan overlapped with the Jewish holiday of Passover. Israeli police raided the compound, firing stun grenades and arresting hundreds of Palestinian worshipers who had barricaded themselves inside the mosque with fireworks and stones. The crackdown, which Israel said was necessary to prevent further violence, outraged Muslims around the world and prompted militants in Lebanon and Gaza to launch rockets at Israel.

Anger at access to the contested ground was undiminished in Qalandiya. Crowds of Palestinian girls and older men who were supposedly allowed to pass were turned back and told they had security bans they never knew would bar them from Jerusalem. The secret system – which the Palestinians see as a key tool in Israel’s 55-year military occupation – reeled them and struggled to understand why.

A 16-year-old girl from the northern city of Jenin frantically called her parents, who had come to Jerusalem without her. A 19-year-old from Ramallah changed her coat and put on sunglasses and lipstick before trying again.

Others found riskier ways to get to the sacred grounds—climbing Israel’s massive separation wall or slithering under barbed wire.

Abdallah, a young medical student from the southern city of Hebron, climbed a rickety ladder with six of his friends in the predawn darkness on Monday — and then slid down a rope on the other side of the wall — so he could follow Al-Aqsa for Laylat al-Qadr. They paid a smuggler about $70 each to help them cross the barrier.

“My heart was beating so loud. I was sure the soldiers would hear it,” said Abdallah, using only his first name for fear of reprisals.

The Israeli military apprehended hundreds of Palestinians who snuck through gaps in the separation barrier during Ramadan, it said, adding that the armed forces “would continue to address the security risk posed by the destruction of the security fence and illegal entry.” yields”.

Abdallah said the experience of Jerusalem’s Old City brought him great joy. But soon unrest spread. The Israeli police were everywhere – occasionally stopping young men and asking for their IDs. He tried to blend in, wearing fake casual clothes like many Jerusalemites, and smiling to look relaxed.

“It’s a mixed feeling. I know I could be arrested at any moment,” he said from the entrance to the sacred compound. “But in our mosque I feel free.”

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