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Palestinians struggle to reach Al-Aqsa due to Israeli restrictions

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During the sermon on the Muslim holy month of Ramadan, a 13-year-old boy named Yousef al-Sideeq was seated on a bench outside the walls of Al Aqsa Mosque.


"On the majority of Fridays, I am denied entry by the Israeli police without any justification," said the teenage resident of Jerusalem.


Each Friday, Yousef makes his way to Jerusalem's Old City to pray at Al Aqsa, which has the highest religious significance for Muslims and is also a component of the historic complex known as the Temple Mount for the Jewish people.


However, after the Hamas-led strikes on October 7 and Israel's subsequent bombing of Gaza, the individual said that highly armed Israeli police troops, who are responsible for guarding many entrances in the Old City, had prevented him from entering the enclosure. He has been able to get entry on just two occasions.


The issue of Muslim access to the mosque has been a subject of disagreement due to Israel's increased control over the area in recent years. This is one of the limitations that Palestinians, who have been living under Israeli occupation for many years, have had to face.


At the start of Ramadan, there is concern among many about the potential limitations that Israel would place on the sacred site. This location can attract 200,000 visitors daily from Jerusalem and the Israeli-occupied West Bank and Israel.


According to the Israeli police, individuals are being admitted after heightened security screenings implemented in response to the prevailing circumstances, in conjunction with measures aimed at averting disruptions. However, they failed to address precise inquiries on the existence of a policy prohibiting specific individuals, particularly young males, from accessing the mosque on Fridays.


The individuals expressed their commitment to maintaining a harmonious equilibrium between the preservation of religious freedom and the need to safeguard security.


On Sunday evening, Palestinian and Israeli news outlets documented instances when police personnel impeded several Palestinians from accessing Al Aqsa to engage in prayers coinciding with the commencement of Ramadan.


Israel has said that the existing state of affairs is unchanged, allowing just Muslims to engage in prayer inside the area. Jews revere the site because of its association with two ancient temples. At the same time, Muslims see it as the Noble Sanctuary, including the Al Aqsa Mosque and other significant Islamic prayer areas. The site encompasses the Dome of the Rock, a prayer hall adorned with a golden dome.


In 1967, Israel seized control of East Jerusalem, which included the Old City and the Aqsa complex, from Jordan and subsequently incorporated it into its territory. A significant portion of the global population perceives East Jerusalem as occupied territory and does not acknowledge the sovereignty of Israel over this region.


A significant number of Palestinians assert that their entry to the Al Aqsa complex has been progressively limited in preference for Jews, who see the Temple Mount as the utmost holy site in Judaism.


Occurrences inside the complex have sometimes served as catalysts for more extensive conflicts. The beginning of the second intifada, also known as the Palestinian uprising, occurred in the year 2000 when Ariel Sharon, who subsequently assumed the position of Israel's prime minister, arrived in Al Aqsa under the protection of several law enforcement personnel. The incidents that occurred in the complex in May 2021 had a significant role in the start of an 11-day conflict between Israel and Hamas.


Hamas, the Palestinian militant organisation that has maintained authority over Gaza for an extended period, referred to their assault on southern Israel on October 7 as the Al Aqsa Flood. They claimed that the attack was partly motivated by their opposition to "Judaization plans" at the mosque.


According to the Israeli government, the assault resulted in the loss of about 1,200 lives, with a further 200 individuals being held as hostages. According to health experts in Gaza, the military operation conducted by Israel against Hamas has resulted in the loss of almost 30,000 Palestinian lives.


In recent times, Jewish adherents have prayed inside the confines of the Aqsa complex. Some advocate for the construction of a third Jewish temple at the location of the Dome of the Rock.


Several very contentious incidents have occurred, involving police troops armed with batons and using tear gas and sponge-tipped bullets during raids on the Aqsa complex. These encounters have resulted in confrontations with Palestinians, who have resorted to hurling stones and igniting fireworks.


The occurrence of the Al Aqsa Flood may be attributed to the settlers' transgressions against Al Aqsa, as stated by Walid Kilani, a spokesperson for Hamas in Lebanon, about Jewish adherents.


According to him, Israeli police personnel assaulted the mosque and made derogatory remarks towards the Muslim prayers taking place inside. "We were compelled to respond,  Al Aqsa holds great religious significance and is referenced in the Quran."


During the early stages of the conflict, access was restricted only to those aged 60 and above, as stated by Mohammad Al-Ashhab, a representative of the Waqf, an Islamic trust responsible for managing the mosque and being funded and supervised by Jordan.


According to him, the number of people attending Friday Prayer, a significant Muslim religious day, decreased from 50,000 to 1,000.


According to the speaker, notwithstanding some progress, a significant number of Muslims continue to face obstacles in their ability to participate.


A significant number of Palestinians express concerns over the future of Al Aqsa, particularly during the tenure of Israel's most conservative administration to date.


The administration led by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said last week that it has opted not to impose more limitations on Al Aqsa during Ramadan. Instead, it would let a comparable number of worshippers as in past years.


Itamar Ben-Gvir, the far-right national security minister, has urged the cabinet to put limitations on Palestinian citizens of Israel this year in addition to the existing Israeli restrictions on Muslims from the occupied West Bank.


However, the Israeli government's decision has raised concerns due to its vague phrasing. Human rights organizations are concerned over the potential restriction of freedom of religion in the name of security and safety.


According to a statement released by Ir Amim, an Israeli rights organization focused on Jerusalem, Netanyahu's speech does not provide an absolute assurance of unrestricted entry for Muslims to Al Aqsa. Instead, it imposes some limits based on security and safety requirements. Consequently, this may result in a determination to finally implement collective admission limitations during the holy month of Ramadan.


According to Mr. al-Ashhab, there has been a regression in our freedom of religion.


On Friday, Muslim worshippers had to go through a minimum of three levels of police obstacles to access the Al Aqsa Mosque site. The authorities impeded entry by conducting ID checks and luggage searches. A multitude of individuals entered, clutching prayer mats.


Abdul Aziz Sbeitan, a 30-year-old individual, was hastily traversing a Muslim cemetery on the periphery of the Old City. His expulsion from Lion's Gate prompted this action, which serves as one of the seven entrances to the renowned historic area. He was engaged in a phone conversation with pals who were attempting to get access from other entrances.


The individual from Jerusalem has consistently participated in Friday Prayer at Al Aqsa, but since October 7, he has been unable to get entry. Every Friday, he attempts to enter various gates.


Occasionally, he follows an elderly lady or adolescent female in an attempt to navigate the situation, although he has always encountered resistance from law enforcement authorities.


"It is a sacred dwelling and the dwelling of our forebears," Mr. Sbeitan said as he swiftly approached Herod's Gate. "Al Aqsa holds significance for Muslims."


Upon reaching Herod's Gate, he saw several young guys being rejected, sometimes subjected to forceful shoves by law enforcement.


Mr. Sbeitan said profanity while igniting a cigarette and observing. Other young guys surrounded him, providing counsel and, in some instances, dissuading him.

"Let us attempt an alternative gate," an individual said to their companion.


Another individual informed the group that despite their attempts, they could not access the gates. "We were granted entry once, but subsequently, they forcibly expelled us once we were inside the gate."


According to him, the Israeli police informed him that entry was prohibited for young men. Like several others, the individual, a 28-year-old resident of Jerusalem, was reluctant to provide his identity due to concerns about potential reprisals from law enforcement.


Not alone were young unmarried males subjected to exclusion. Fathers with young children and some women were also denied entry.


"Their caprices entirely determine it," a lady said as she departed after being barred from entering at Lion's Gate.


Upon hearing the call to prayer inside Al Aqsa, Yousef, a 13-year-old, spontaneously joined a group of several young men who could not gain entry.


In previous weeks, those who could not pray inside Al Aqsa would convene in public spaces to deliver their sermons and engage in prayer. However, the situation became more challenging on Friday when the Israeli police forcibly repelled them from Lion's Gate and relocated them to a location outside the confines of the Old City.


Unfazed, a single individual initiated the summons to pray, sometimes barely perceptible among the cacophony of sirens and horns resonating down the thoroughfare, buses passing by, and the police vociferating.


Shortly after, a different individual climbed upon a stone barrier on the pavement and delivered an impromptu sermon.


"Will we not achieve the liberation of Palestine?" inquired the individual, who identified himself just as Yousef, apprehensive of facing retaliation despite the danger he had already assumed by delivering a sermon.


Upon his completion, other police officers, equipped with heavy weaponry, emerged from two cars.


The guy exhibited a lack of arousal. Subsequently, he led many individuals, primarily adolescents and young adults in their twenties and thirties, in a prayer session on a bustling pavement in Jerusalem, encompassed by two churches and the Tomb of the Virgin. The central structure of the Aqsa complex, known as the Gilded Dome of the Rock, had little visibility from the surrounding Old City walls.

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