Al-Aqsa pilgrims: 'We are sending the message that Jerusalem is for us'
JERUSALEM - The excitement started in Ramallah, its markets choked with traffic more than usual. Each yellow minibus was mobbed as it arrived, with the drivers calling - "To the crossing! To the crossing!"
People hefted their bags, packed with picnics, and climbed aboard - the first stage in their journey to Jerusalem.
Wednesday night, which fell on the 27th night of Ramadan, was widely believed to be Laylat al-Qadr, the Night of Power, which is one of the holiest nights in the Islamic calendar. It marks the night in which the Quran was first revealed to the Prophet Muhammad. The Quran says that "it is better than a 1,000 months," which is more than a lifetime for many.
Prayer is believed to be especially beneficial on this night, and so hundreds of thousands descended on Jerusalem to pray at Al-Aqsa mosque, Islam's third-holiest site. However, amid additional restrictions on movement imposed after an attack in Jerusalem last week and a lingering sense of fear, fewer Palestinians came to pray than last year.
Like much in Palestine, pilgrimage is complicated by the occupation. Palestinians from the West Bank generally need a permit to enter East Jerusalem, and Israel beyond. For Ramadan, however, the Israeli authorities loosened some restrictions, issuing permits for prayer to some people, and letting in all women and men over the age of 40.
So the Qalandia checkpoint, on the road between Ramallah and Jerusalem, was busier than usual. The traffic began a kilometre back, as masses of people descended from taxis and buses. What was normally the vehicle lane at the crossing had become the women's entrance, where groups in long coats and hijabs were steadily filing through. Israeli border police were perched above on concrete blocks, watchful, rifles in their hands.
‘Amongst all this politics, and these killings, and these settlements, still we will go to Jerusalem’
- Mowifuq Abu Khalil
Next to a fire-blackened mural of Yasser Arafat, Harbi Abu Mazen, from Beita near Nablus, told Middle East Eye that he would be in Jerusalem for the first time in 17 years when he crossed. "I am not sure what I will find over there," he said. "I'm bringing my son and daughter with me, and it will be their first ever time in the city."
A woman from Tulkarem, who preferred to remain anonymous, said that she had not been in Jerusalem for four years, and her daughters not for 10. "I'm not scared of the checkpoint," she said. "I'm just going there with my girls."
The day was mercifully cool for summer, making it easier for those fasting all day, although a sharp breeze whipped up the dust and rubbish that littered the checkpoint.
At the men's entrance, Mowifuq Abu Khalil, 62, was defiant about what Palestinians' presence in Jerusalem meant. "We want to send the message that Jerusalem is for us and Al-Aqsa is for us," he said. "Amongst all this politics, and these killings, and these settlements, still we will go to Jerusalem."
Also here though were men who had been refused passage. They milled around and muttered with others who had been unlucky, planning what other way might work. Ahmed Qalaweh, from Jenin, was one of them. "I tried three times," he said. "I had a permit to visit family inside Israel, but they say it has been revoked."
'I'm really sad not to be able to visit. I will try again to get there, whatever it takes'
- Ahmed Qalaweh, from Jenin
"I'm really sad not to be able to visit. I will try again to get there, whatever it takes," he said.
In the wake of last Friday's deadly attack in Jerusalem, when an Israeli border police officer was stabbed to death by three Palestinian attackers who were shot and killed, the Israeli government cancelled 250,000 such family visitation permits. The move was part of what Palestinians and rights groups say are a package of measures of collective punishment that often follow attacks.
The Waqf, the Islamic trust that runs the Al-Aqsa compound, initially said that 270,000 people had come to pray, well short of last year's 400,000, and also less than the 300,000 that came on Friday. The head of the Waqf later told the Palestinian news agency Maan that he thought only 220,000 people had come.
Yet for those nimble and daring enough, there was a way into Jerusalem that did not require papers.
Al-Ram is a dense Palestinian neighbourhood, and along its western edge runs Jerusalem's municipal boundary and Israel's towering wall. It is a favourite spot for Palestinians who want to try and jump over - despite the wall's eight metre height, barbed-wire topping, and the army and border police that patrol it.
One man had just jumped over when MEE drove by. The barbed wire had been pulled from the top of the wall, and the ladder he had used lay broken on the ground. The army were just pulling away in their jeep, orange lights flashing, Israeli flag fluttering in the breeze. It was unclear what had happened to him on the other side.
Further down the wall, men were waiting in cars. For 50 NIS ($14) they would take you to a quieter spot, away from the main road, where they said it was easier to cross. "Not many are crossing here today," one told Middle East Eye. The rumour was that the Israeli police did a good job catching people here last Friday - and beat some of those they caught - and so people were wary. The men here did not want to say where the other spot is, and warned MEE not to film. "Those crossing are not stupid," the guide said. "They'll break your camera."
Back at Qalandia, people were attempting to cross the checkpoints all day long, hoping to spend a day in Jerusalem in preparation for the night of prayer ahead. The late evening sun was slicing through the bars of the cages in which those crossing waited. People were packed close, and the smell of sweat was strong. Remotely operated turnstiles let people through one by one, or a few at a time, and bags were X-rayed.
Some people were being refused entry, putting on their belts as they came back out of the turnstiles, downcast. One man was holding his ID card up to the misty, bulletproof glass, and the soldier inside was squinting at it. He motioned for the man to put his finger on the fingerprint scanner, checked his computer and then mouthed mamnooa - forbidden. "Why?" the man asked, but the soldier just gestured, raising his chin and spreading his arms in the Middle Eastern way that says both "I don't know" and "I don't care", and waved him back.
There was, therefore, a palpable sense of quiet relief among those on the other side. Women and children were waiting for the men in their families, whose security checks took far longer. The runway of the old Qalandia airport had been requisitioned as a bus station, and it was from here that a continuous chain of coaches were setting off into Jerusalem's evening traffic.
As sunset approached, and with it the time to break the Ramadan fast, people scrambled to buy the food they needed. A shawarma shop outside the old city walls was heaving, its workers frantically packing and rolling piles of meat into bread.
A downward trend
Overall, the city of Jerusalem seemed relatively quiet. Fridays in Ramadan prior to last week's attack had seen the main thoroughfares choked with worshippers. The crowds last night only occasionally reached that point. One worshipper inside the mosque said by text that last year he had not been able to bend down to pray, or to get a phone signal. Last night he could do both.
'Each Ramadan for the past three years there's been attacks or wars. When that happens, the Israelis shut things down, and people are scared to come'
- Osama Risheq, human rights activist
Shopkeepers in the city lamented the lack of business, and said that it was part of a downward trend that had begun long before Friday's attack.
"It's not just the attack," one newsagent in the old city said. "The occupation increased all their pressure on us and business is bad."
Osama Risheq, a human rights activist who also runs a snack shop on Salah ad-Deen street, East Jerusalem, said that business was down 30 percent from last year. "Ramadan has been very bad," he said.
"Each Ramadan for the past three years there's been attacks or wars. When that happens, the Israelis shut things down, and people are scared to come," he added.
Despite the dip in numbers, a festive mood prevailed back at Al-Aqsa. Picknicking on the esplanade, a family from Nablus were writing out cards and taking photographs to send to male relatives who were not lucky enough to pass through the checkpoints, like thousands of others.
Framing the photos against the glorious golden dome of the rock, they sent a message to those for whom Jerusalem would remain just pictures again this year. "Al-Aqsa misses you," the signs read.
*Elia Ghorbiah and Alaa Daraghme contributed to this piece.
This article is available in French on Middle East Eye French edition.