The dangerous week ahead in the Old City of Jerusalem

Jerusalem is on edge as radical Jewish activists push to hold a ritual where Muslims gather for Ramadan.

Israeli police close a path leading to the Al-Aqsa Mosque compound after shots were fired in the Old City of Jerusalem during the Muslim holy month of Ramadan, April 1, 2023. (AP Photo/ Mahmoud Illean)

(RNS) — Last Passover, six Israelis in their 20s were arrested for allegedly plotting to sacrifice a goat in the 35-acre esplanade outside the Al-Aqsa Mosque in Jerusalem. Built in the eighth century, the mosque is the third holiest site in Islam and is administered by the Jordanian royal family as part of its custodianship of the holy sites in Jerusalem. The esplanade is also holy to Jews, who call it the Temple Mount and for years have tried to arrange a sacrifice at Passover there.

For the radical Jewish group Returning to the Mount, the arrests alone were a score: The group had offered to pay a reward of 400 new Israeli shekels for anyone who got arrested. Arrested with a goat was good for NIS 800. If they managed to pull off a sacrifice, it would be worth NIS 10,000.

This year the same elements of hard-line Jewish extremism have again taken up the call to perform a sacrifice for Passover, posting ads on social media offering rewards for anyone who spreads ashes of sacrifice and showing photos of the precise location where it should happen. 

But there is a difference: This year, with the return of Benjamin Netanyahu as prime minister, the Israeli minister in charge of the Israeli police force is a radical Jewish activist who has himself threatened in the past to carry out a ritual slaughter at the Al-Aqsa complex. Itamar Ben-Gvir, Netanyahu’s national security minister, has publicly vowed to make way for Jews to pray on their Temple Mount, contradicting a centuries-old status quo.

This year has also seen a huge uptick in violence, with 90 Palestinians (including children) who have been killed by Israeli soldiers since the beginning of 2023. A Palestinian citizen of Israel who had finished his doctoral studies, Muhammad Al-Asibi, was shot dead Saturday (April 1) at the holy site as he tried to intervene with an Israeli soldier attempting to arrest a Palestinian Muslim woman. Amnesty International has called for an investigation. Israel claims he attempted to steal the soldier’s weapon. 

This week, the dangers are even more heightened as the Jewish and Islamic religious calendars overlap. The weeklong Passover season begins the evening of Wednesday, which this year corresponds to the 14th day of Ramadan, the Muslim month of fasting. Hundreds of thousands of Muslim believers are arriving in the city for prayer and blessings, some scaling Israel’s 8-foot border wall and others waiting in line for hours to be allowed into the city at military checkpoints. On Friday, 250,000 worshippers entered, according to the Jerusalem Islamic Waqf, which oversees the holy site.

Israeli far-right lawmaker and the head of "Jewish Power" party, Itamar Ben-Gvir, gestures after first exit poll results for the Israeli Parliamentary election at his party's headquarters in Jerusalem, Wednesday, Nov. 2, 2022. (AP Photo/Oren Ziv)

Israeli far-right lawmaker and the head of “Jewish Power” party, Itamar Ben-Gvir, gestures after first exit poll results for the Israeli parliamentary election at his party’s headquarters in Jerusalem, Nov. 2, 2022. (AP Photo/Oren Ziv)

All of this means that everyone is on edge, as not only Ben-Gvir but another senior minister has come out in support of the fanatics, with a huge Muslim population standing in their way. 

Further escalating tensions, fasting Muslim believers often stay overnight in the mosque in a practice known as i’tikaf. Overnight stays are more common in the last 10 days of Ramadan when, according to Islamic tradition, the Quran was revealed to Muhammad. The focus in this period is the 27th day of Ramadan (which this year falls on April 18), which is referred to as Laylatul Qadr, or “The Night of Power.” On this night, proper observance can earn forgiveness for a lifetime of sins. 

However, fear of Jewish zealots storming the mosque has prompted many Muslims to begin the overnight stay earlier. But Israel and Ben-Gvir have refused to allow the i’tikaf, instead using violence to empty the mosque every night. They may yet as the Night of Power approaches, but the situation — especially as the two holy seasons overlap for three days — could be combustible.

The sensitivities about Al-Aqsa go well beyond the Palestinian-Israeli conflict to touch the feelings of 1.9 billion Muslims around the world but most intensely the Jordanian leadership, which has been the custodian of the holy place in Jerusalem for decades.

Palestinian volunteers clean the ground outside the Dome of Rock Mosque at the Al-Aqsa Mosque compound ahead of the Muslim holy month of Ramadan, in Jerusalem's Old City, Saturday, March 18, 2023. (AP Photo/Mahmoud Illean)

Palestinian volunteers clean the ground outside the Dome of Rock Mosque at the Al-Aqsa Mosque compound ahead of the Muslim holy month of Ramadan, in Jerusalem’s Old City, March 18, 2023. (AP Photo/Mahmoud Illean)

Last month Jordan’s King Abdullah personally took part in a security summit in Aqaba followed by a similar summit in Sharm el Sheikh, Egypt, to work out the logistics for a Ramadan without major incidents. The United States was present in these meetings, along with Egyptian, Israeli, and Palestinian representatives. The big question on everyone’s mind is whether the agreements in Aqaba and Sharm el Sheikh, particularly Israeli commitments to de-escalate, will be directly and strictly observed or not.

It is clear that the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is slipping fast into uncharted territory. What is crucially important is to do everything possible to avoid allowing sensitive religious issues and the accompanying high emotions to replace a political conflict.

(Daoud Kuttab is an award-winning Palestinian journalist from Jerusalem. Follow him on Twitter @daoudkuttab. The views expressed in this commentary do not necessarily reflect those of Religion News Service.)

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