Tens of thousands of Palestinian worshippers from across the occupied West Bank on Monday crammed through a military checkpoint leading to occupied East Jerusalem to pray at the Al-Aqsa Mosque for Laylat al-Qadr, or the “Night of Destiny,” when Muslims believe that the Quran was revealed to the Prophet Muhammad more than 1,400 years ago.
For Palestinian worshippers, praying at the third-holiest site in Islam is a centrepiece of Ramadan. But hundreds of thousands are barred from legally crossing into Jerusalem, with most men under 55 turned away at checkpoints due to Israeli security restrictions. They often resort to perilous means to get to the holy compound during the fasting month of Ramadan.
This year, as in the past, Israel has eased some restrictions, allowing women and young children from the occupied West Bank to enter Jerusalem without a permit. Those between the ages of 45 and 55 who have a valid permit can pray at the Al-Aqsa Mosque compound.
Israel says it is committed to protecting freedom of worship for all faiths and describes the controls on Palestinian worshippers as an essential security measure that keeps attackers out of Israel.
But for Palestinians, the restrictions take a toll.
“I feel completely lost,” said 53-year-old Noureddine Odeh, his backpack sagging off one shoulder. His wife and teenage daughters made it through the checkpoint, leaving him behind. This year – a period of surging violence in the occupied West Bank – Israel raised the age limit for male worshippers and he was no longer eligible. “You’re tugged 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. But they said that so far this month, some 289,000 Palestinians – the majority from the West Bank and a few hundred from the besieged Gaza Strip – had visited Jerusalem for prayers.
Earlier this month, Israel announced the start of special Ramadan flights for West Bank Palestinians from Ramon Airport in southern Israel. In normal times, Palestinians would have to fly from neighbouring Jordan. But Monday, days before the end of Ramadan, the Israeli agency that handles Palestinian civilian affairs said only that Palestinians “will soon have the option”.
The crowds squeezing through Qalandiya during Laylat al-Qadr – one of the most important nights of the year, when Muslims seek to have their prayers answered – were so overwhelming that Israeli forces repeatedly shut the barrier. The sudden closures created bottlenecks of people, most of whom had abstained from food and water all day. Medics from the Palestinian Red Crescent said at least 30 people collapsed at the checkpoint on a busy Ramadan day.
Their elbows pressed into strangers’ torsos and heads squeezed under armpits, five women studying to be midwives who had never before left the West Bank entertained themselves with fantasies of Jerusalem. “We’ll buy meat and sweets,” squealed 20-year-old Sondos Warasna. “And picnic in the Al-Aqsa courtyard.”