On eve of Ramadan, Jerusalem’s Old City offers little festivity as Gaza war rages

Palestinian Muslim worshipers who were prevented from entering the Al-Aqsa Mosque compound, pray outside Jerusalem's Old City, Friday, March 8, 2024. Restrictions put in place amid the Israel-Hamas war have left many Palestinians concerned they might not be able to pray at the mosque, which is revered by Muslims. (AP Photo/Mahmoud Illean)

JERUSALEM — On the eve of the Muslim fasting month of Ramadan, Jerusalem’s Old City bears few of its usual hallmarks of festivity.

Nearly half of the grotto-shaped gift shops are sealed behind metal shutters. The narrow streets that run toward Al-Aqsa Mosque, Islam’s third-holiest site, are eerily empty. Absent are the fairy lights and shining lanterns that would usually dangle above hurried worshippers.


Ramadan preparations in Jerusalem, the spiritual heart of the decades-old Israeli-Palestinian conflict, have been subdued because of the Israel-Hamas war in Gaza, now in its sixth month. With more than 30,000 Palestinians killed in Gaza and hundreds of thousands going hungry, there’s little room for expressions of joy.

“This will be the black Ramadan,” Abu Mousam Haddad said in front of his coffee stand near Damascus Gate, one of the Old City’s main entrances. But over the next few days, attention is likely to shift from Gaza to Al-Aqsa, which has been a frequent flashpoint for quickly escalating Israeli-Palestinian violence in the past.

Hamas, which portrayed its Oct. 7 attack on southern Israel as a battle for Muslim rights at Al-Aqsa, seeks such an eruption now in the hopes of engaging Israeli forces on new fronts and improving its leverage in Gaza cease-fire talks.

The militants have urged Palestinians across Israel and the occupied West Bank to stream to the mosque during Ramadan to challenge anticipated Israeli restrictions on worship and movement.

Although such restrictions often triggered past clashes, it’s not clear if Palestinians will risk confrontations in the current climate.

“There is great fear among people about what Ramadan will look like this year and how the Israeli police will behave regarding the entry and exit … into the city,” said Imad Mona, who owns a bookshop outside the Old City.

Israel has limited access to Al-Aqsa to varying degrees over the years, including by barring young men, citing security concerns. The Israeli government has provided few details ahead of this year’s Ramadan, which could start as early as Sunday evening. But it has said some Palestinians from the West Bank will be allowed to pray at Al-Aqsa

In the past, Israeli forces raiding the sacred compound have clashed with stone-throwing Palestinians who barricaded themselves inside, at times to protest Israeli access restrictions. Such clashes have triggered escalations, including Hamas rocket fire, which set off a brief Israel-Hamas war in 2021.

The compound has long been a deeply contested religious space, as it stands on the Temple Mount, which Jews consider their most sacred site.

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