West Bank QALANDIYA CHECKPOINT: On the holiest night of Ramadan, many Palestinians began their journey to one of Islam’s most sacred places in a dust-choked, garbage-strewn storm.

Tens of thousands of Palestinian worshippers crammed through a military checkpoint leading to Jerusalem on Monday to pray at the Al-Aqsa Mosque for Laylat Al-Qadr, or the “Night of Destiny,” when Muslims believe the Qur’an was revealed to the Prophet Muhammad centuries ago.
The raucous, sweaty masses at Qalandiya checkpoint appear chaotic — but there was a protocol in place: ladies to the right, males to the left. Residents of Jerusalem are here, as are disabled persons. And the glum-faced men stranded at the corner had suffered the long wait only to be turned around.

“I’m not political, 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 Ramallah in the West Bank.

“But no. “‘Forbidden,'” he muttered as he knelt in the dirt lot to pray.

Praying at the third-holiest location in Islam is a focal point of Ramadan for Palestinian believers. However, hundreds of thousands of people are prevented from lawfully entering Jerusalem, with most men under the age of 55 being turned away at checkpoints due to Israeli security regulations. During the fasting month of Ramadan, they frequently use risky measures to reach the sacred site.
This year, like in previous years, Israel has relaxed some restrictions, allowing West Bank women and children to enter Jerusalem without a permission. Those between the ages of 45 and 55 who have a legal permit can pray at the Al-Aqsa Mosque compound, one of the world’s most contentious sacred sites.

The Temple Mount, which housed the biblical Temples, is revered by Jews as the holiest site in Judaism. The conflict between Israel and Palestine is centered on conflicting claims, which frequently escalate into violence.

Israel maintains it is dedicated to defending religious freedom for all faiths and views the restrictions on Palestinian worshippers as a necessary security precaution to keep terrorists out of Israel. Last month, a Palestinian from the West Bank hamlet of Nilin crossed into Israel and opened fire on a crowded street in Tel Aviv, killing one Israeli and injuring two more.

However, the restrictions have a negative impact on Palestinians.

“I feel completely lost,” said Noureddine Odeh, 53, his backpack dangling from one shoulder. His wife and adolescent girls passed through the checkpoint without him. This year, during a moment of escalating conflict in the occupied West Bank, Israel upped the age limit for male worshippers, making him ineligible. “You’re being dragged around as if they’re playing God.”

Israeli authorities refused to answer inquiries about how many Palestinian applications from the West Bank and Gaza they had rejected. However, they said that 289,000 Palestinians, mostly from the West Bank and a few hundred from Gaza, have visited Jerusalem for prayers so far this month.

Earlier this month, Israel announced the launch of special Ramadan flights from Ramon Airport in southern Israel to West Bank Palestinians. In normal circumstances, Palestinians would have to fly from Jordan. But, just days before Ramadan ends, the Israeli defense agency in charge of Palestinian civilian affairs indicated simply that Palestinians “will soon have the option.”

The masses cramming through Qalandiya during Laylat Al-Qadr — one of the most sacred nights of the year, when Muslims seek answers to their prayers — were so dense that Israeli authorities had to close the barrier many times. The sudden restrictions caused crowds to form, most of whom had gone without food and water all day. On a busy Ramadan day, at least 30 people collapsed at the crossing, according to Palestinian Red Crescent medics.
Five women learning to be midwives who had never left the West Bank occupied themselves with visions of Jerusalem, their elbows jammed against strangers’ torsos and heads squashed beneath armpits. “We’ll buy meat and sweets,” Sondos Warasna, 20, exclaimed. “And have a picnic in the Al-Aqsa courtyard.”

The limestone courtyard, which is teeming with Palestinian families breaking fast each night after sunset, got tense earlier this month when Ramadan coincided with the Jewish festival of Passover. Israeli police stormed the compound, firing stun grenades and arresting hundreds of Palestinian worshippers who had fortified themselves inside the mosque with pyrotechnics and stones. The raid, which Israel justified as essential to avoid further violence, infuriated Muslims worldwide and provoked extremists in Lebanon and Gaza to launch missiles at Israel.

At Qalandiya, the outrage over access to the contested enclave was palpable. Hundreds of Palestinian females and older men who were allegedly allowed to cross were turned back and told they had security prohibitions they had no idea about that banned them from entering Jerusalem. The hidden system, which Palestinians regard as a major instrument in Israel’s 55-year-old military occupation, left them stunned and perplexed.

A 16-year-old girl from Jenin’s northern city hurriedly called her parents, who had arrived in Jerusalem without her. Before attempting again, a 19-year-old Ramallah woman changed her outerwear, put on sunglasses, and lipstick.
Others took more dangerous routes to the holy compound, such as scrambling over Israel’s massive separation barrier or slithering under razor wire.

Abdallah, a young medical student from the southern city of Hebron, climbed a rickety ladder with six of his friends in the pre-dawn darkness Monday, then slid down a rope on the other side of the wall to reach Al-Aqsa for Laylat Al-Qadr. They paid a smuggler $70 each to assist them in crossing the border.

“My heart was racing so fast. “I was certain soldiers would hear it,” Abdallah said, using only his first name out of fear of retaliation.

According to the Israeli military, hundreds of Palestinians crept through gaps in the separation barrier during Ramadan, and forces will “continue to act against the security risk arising from the destruction of the security fence and illegal entry.”

Abdallah expressed his delight at his visit to Jerusalem’s Old City. However, worry soon set in. Israeli police were everywhere, stopping young males and asking for their identification. He tried to blend in, dressed in fake athleisure like many Jerusalemites and smiling to appear relaxed.

“I have conflicting feelings. “I know I could be arrested at any time,” he stated from the gate to the sacred site. “But our mosque, it makes me feel free.”



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