QALANDIYA CHECKPOINT, West Bank (AP) — For many Palestinians, the journey to one of Islam’s most sacred sites on the holiest night of Ramadan begins in a dust-choked, garbage-strewn maelstrom.
Tens of thousands of Palestinian worshippers from across the occupied West Bank on Monday crammed 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 Quran was revealed to the Prophet Mohammad centuries ago.
The noisy, sweaty crowds at Qalandiya checkpoint seem chaotic — but there was a system: women to the right; men to the left. Jerusalem residents here, disabled people there. And the grim-looking men stranded at the corner had endured the long wait only to be turned back altogether.
“I’m not political, I’m just devout, so I thought maybe tonight, because of Laylat al-Qadr, they’d let me in,” said Deia Jamil, a 40-year-old Arabic teacher from the West Bank city of Ramallah.
“But no. ‘Forbidden,’” he said, sinking onto his knees to pray in the dirt lot.
For Palestinian worshippers, praying at the third-holiest site in Islam is a centerpiece 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 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 — one of the most bitterly disputed holy sites on Earth.
Jews revere it as the Temple Mount, home to 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 spill over into violence.
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. Last month, a Palestinian who crossed into Israel from the West Bank village of Nilin opened fire on a crowded street in Tel Aviv, killing one Israeli and wounding two others.
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’d 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 Gaza Strip — had visited Jerusalem for prayers.
Earlier this month, Israel announced the start of special Ramadan flights for West Bank Palestinians from the Ramon Airport in southern Israel. In normal times, Palestinians would have to fly from neighboring Jordan. But Monday, days before the end of Ramadan, the Israeli defense 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 collapse 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.”
The limestone courtyard, which teems with Palestinian families breaking fast each night after sunset, became roiled by violence earlier this month, when Ramadan overlapped with the Jewish holiday of Passover. Israeli police raided the compound, firing stun grenades and arresting hundreds of Palestinian worshippers who had barricaded themselves inside the mosque with fireworks and stones. The raid, which Israel said was necessary to prevent further violence, outraged Muslims across the world and prompted militants in Lebanon and the Gaza Strip to fire rockets at Israel.
Anger over access to the contested compound was undimmed at Qalandiya. Throngs of Palestinian girls and older men ostensibly permitted to pass were turned back and told they had security bans they never knew about that barred them from Jerusalem. The secretive system — which Palestinians consider a key tool in Israel’s 55-year-old military occupation — left them reeling, struggling to understand why.
A 16-year-old girl from the northern city of Jenin frantically called her parents who had entered 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 holy compound — scrambling over Israel’s hulking separation barrier or sliding under razor wire.
Abdallah, a young medical student from the southern city of Hebron, clambered up a rickety ladder with six of his friends in the pre-dawn darkness Monday — then slid down a rope on the wall’s other side — so he could make it to Al-Aqsa for Laylat al-Qadr. They paid a smuggler some $70 each to help them scale the barrier.
“My heart was beating so loud. I was sure soldiers would hear it,” Abdallah said, giving only his first name for fear of reprisals.
The Israeli military has picked up hundreds of Palestinians who sneaked through holes in the separation barrier during Ramadan, it said, adding that forces would “continue to act against the security risk arising from the destruction of the security fence and illegal entry.”
Abdallah said the experience of Jerusalem’s Old City brought him great joy. But soon anxiety set in. Israeli police were everywhere — occasionally stopping young men and asking to see their IDs. He tried to blend in, wearing counterfeit athleisure like many Jerusalemites and smiling to look relaxed.
“It’s a mixed feeling. At any moment I know I could be arrested,” he said from the entrance to the sacred compound. “But our mosque, it makes me feel free.”