Occupied Jerusalem: The last time Muslim worshippers 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 Mohammed (PBUH) 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 Occupied 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, Palestinians of the 1948 era (Arab citizens of Israel) and Palestinians in the Occupied Territories 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 occupied Jerusalem, held back tears as he spoke about his desire to pray at the mosque.
“The Aqsa is healthy, but we aren’t,” said 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.
In one of the few large open spaces near the Aqsa compound last week, some 30 worshippers, including 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 the Israeli occupation regime’s 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 (taraweeh), as well as Friday afternoon prayers. Tens of thousands of social media users have viewed the broadcasts.
Other organisations have also been providing online content to Muslims during this Ramadan like no other.
Ramadan Nights from [occupied] Jerusalem, a coalition of Israeli and Palestinian organisations, 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 in to a wide range of programmes, like a lesson on how to prepare kibbe, deep-fried balls of ground meat and bulgur; a lecture about the sayings of Prophet Mohammed (PBUH); and an oud concert.
Opportunities for non-Muslims
“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 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.”
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 occupied 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.
'Like no other place'
But Omar Kiswani, director of the Aqsa, has fiercely defended the decision to keep the compound closed to worshippers, 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 occupied 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 Kiswani.
“It’s stayed open through invasions, wars and plagues,” said Martin Kramer, chairman of Islamic studies at Shalem College in occupied Jerusalem. “It’s precisely at such times that people sought to pray.”
On several occasions, the Israeli occupation regime has closed the Aqsa for short periods of time in the wake of attacks against its occupation troops as well as confrontations between them and Muslim worshippers. After three Arab citizens of Israel killed two police officers guarding an entrance to the site in 2017, Israeli occupation regime shuttered the compound for about two days.