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The site is often a flashpoint during flare-ups in the Israel-Palestinian conflict
By Yolande Knell
BBC News, Jerusalem

There are renewed fears of violence spreading, particularly to Jerusalem, during the Islamic holy month of Ramadan, as a truce remains elusive.

Hamas has reiterated a call for Palestinians to step up visits to al-Aqsa Mosque.

Israel has accused Hamas of “striving to ignite the region during Ramadan”, which is due to begin in the next few days.

The third holiest shrine in Islam is a place of worship for local Muslims.

But the site – also the holiest place in Judaism, known as Temple Mount – is often a flashpoint during flare-ups in the Israel-Palestinian conflict.

Ramadan is due to begin on 10 or 11 March depending on sighting of the new moon.

This week, the courtyards of al-Aqsa were calm as I visited, but Palestinian worshippers’ minds were on the war.

“People don’t feel like celebrating and enjoying the regular Ramadan traditions,” said one woman, Ayat, sadly. “This year, they won’t go ahead because of what’s happening in Gaza.”

Hopes that a 40-day ceasefire could take effect by the start of Ramadan have faded although Egyptian sources say mediators will again meet a Hamas delegation on Sunday to try to reach an agreement with Israel.

Israel said on Saturday that its spy chief had met with his US counterpart as it continued efforts to try to release dozens of hostages.

Afterwards the Israeli prime minister’s office released a statement saying Hamas was “holding to its position,” as if it was “uninterested in a deal.”

A framework plan being discussed would see some of the Israeli hostages snatched by Hamas in its deadly 7 October attacks released in exchange for Palestinian prisoners and an increase in aid, amid UN warnings of famine.

“This Ramadan will be difficult. How will we break our daily fast and eat when we think of our compatriots in Gaza,” commented Abu Nader, who had been following the news, as he crossed al-Aqsa in his mobility scooter.

“We pray to God for better times.”

Abu Nader says breaking the daily fast will be hard given the levels of hunger in Gaza

Israeli police are always visibly dotted around the vast al-Aqsa mosque complex and have officers present at every gate, controlling access.

Since Israel captured East Jerusalem, including this part of the Old City, from Jordan in the 1967 Middle East War and occupied and annexed it, the site has become a prominent symbol of the wider Palestinian struggle.

In 2000, the visit of then Israeli opposition leader, Ariel Sharon to the sacred hilltop was seen as a key trigger for the Second Palestinian Uprising, which Palestinians refer to as the “al-Aqsa Intifada”.

There are often clashes here between Israeli security forces and Palestinian worshippers, particularly during Ramadan.

Tensions also run high whenever there are Israeli nationalist marches in the Old City, and in response to calls from Israel’s far-right to change the long-established, highly sensitive religious status quo rules at the site, which permit Jewish visitors but not Jewish prayer.

In May 2021, heightened tensions in Jerusalem erupted in violence at al-Aqsa. Hamas then fired rockets at Jerusalem, leading to a short war in Gaza and widespread unrest between Jewish and Arab Israelis.

Last year, when Ramadan overlapped with the Jewish Passover holiday, reports circulated that Jewish extremists planned to carry out the ritual sacrifice of a goat on Temple Mount.

Not trusting Israeli police to prevent that, hundreds of Muslims barricaded themselves in al-Aqsa and stun grenades were used against them.

This year, Ramadan does not coincide with any major Jewish holiday.

Dr Imam Mustafa Abu Sway says people who come to al-Aqsa Mosque during Ramadan do so to pray, not inflame tensions

How this Ramadan plays out depends a lot on events in Gaza as well as the limitations imposed by Israel.

The far-right Israeli National Security Minister, Itamar Ben-Gvir, did call for tight restrictions on Muslim Israeli citizens’ access to al-Aqsa, saying this was to stop Hamas “celebrating victory” while Israeli hostages remained captive in Gaza.

However, the Israeli Prime Minister, Benjamin Netanyahu has now rejected the plan. He said that worshippers would be permitted to enter the mosque during the first week of Ramadan, as they have in the past, with the security situation re-evaluated each week.

It is not yet clear what numbers will be allowed to reach the site.

During the Gaza war, Israel has largely blocked Palestinians from the West Bank from entering Jerusalem. Typically, tens of thousands would pass through Israeli military checkpoints to attend Friday prayers during this sacred month.

The Israeli government spokesman, Eylon Levy, insisted that the right decisions would be made to safeguard freedom of worship.

“Ramadan is often an occasion when extremist elements try to whip up and inflame violence. We are working to deter that,” he told the BBC.

“We will continue to facilitate access to the Temple Mount for worship as in previous years, make clear that is our policy and will, of course, work against anyone determined to disturb the peace.”

Next to the gold-gilded Dome of the Rock, I met Dr Imam Mustafa Abu Sway, a member of the Islamic Waqf council, which administers al-Aqsa Mosque or Haram al-Sharif, which the compound is also known as.

“A few years ago, Israel allowed practically everyone who wanted to, to come from the West Bank and there wasn’t one single incident,” the scholar said.

“People do come to worship. They don’t come to disturb the peace. If the Israeli police and security forces leave them alone, everything will, hopefully, be ok.”

This year, even more than usual, the world will be scrutinising what happens in Jerusalem, to see if that is the case.

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13 February