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During Ramadan, Palestinians Barred From Aqsa Turn to Smugglers

JERUSALEM — Only moonlight cut through the darkness early one recent morning by the time a smuggler led Husam Misk to a ladder propped against Israel’s concrete separation barrier.

Mr. Misk, a 27-year-old dentist, said he climbed the ladder quickly but was still short of the top of the 26-foot wall. He grabbed the edge where the razor wire had been cut and hoisted himself up, pausing briefly to scan the area. No sign of any soldiers.

He grabbed the rope dangling from the other side, braced his feet against the wall and lowered himself.

About an hour later, Mr. Misk, said, he walked into Al Aqsa Mosque compound in Jerusalem just in time to catch dawn prayers. Barred from legally crossing into Jerusalem from his home in the West Bank, he was one of many Palestinians who resorted to other means to visit one of the most sacred sites in Islam during the holy month of Ramadan.

“I come out of conviction to pray and to stand in solidarity,” said Mr. Misk, sitting in the shade of a tree in the Aqsa compound on a recent afternoon. “Because Al Aqsa is the center of the struggle between us and the Israelis.”

The Israeli government, which generally bars West Bank residents from entering Jerusalem without a permit, usually eases restrictions to allow hundreds of thousands to visit Al Aqsa during Ramadan. Children up to age 12, women and men 50 and older are allowed to attend Friday Prayers there without a permit. Men aged 40 to 50 can enter with an existing permit.

But most young men and those with criminal records are turned back at official crossing points or denied entry permits. While Palestinians argue that such restrictions are discriminatory, Israeli officials, still reeling from a spate of Palestinian attacks that killed 14 people starting just before Ramadan, insist they are necessary security measures.

Many Palestinians who are denied entry — hundreds a day, those who cross say — instead climb the controversial separation barrier, walk through openings cut where the barrier is a metal fence, or hike through mountainous terrain where there are gaps in the barrier. Others make doctor’s appointments to obtain medical permits to enter Jerusalem, or bribe soldiers or Jewish settlers to get them through checkpoints, according to people who have used these methods.

Some livestream their journeys to encourage other Palestinians to follow their path.

While those interviewed who circumvented the rules said they had come to Aqsa to pray or pay homage to the historic site, Israeli officials said that unmonitored entries presented a potential security threat.

Hundreds of Palestinians, mostly young men, were arrested at the mosque over the past two weeks, accused of rioting. A police spokesman said that “a handful” of those arrested were found to have entered Israel illegally.

Over the past two years, during the coronavirus pandemic, security along the 440-mile barrier grew more lax and openings in the fencing multiplied.

The recent Palestinian attacks focused the government’s attention on the security lapses. The Israeli authorities identified one of the attackers, a gunman who killed five people in a Tel Aviv suburb last month, as a West Bank resident who had crossed into Israel illegally.

Prime Minister Naftali Bennett, speaking of the gaps in the barrier at a cabinet meeting this month, acknowledged “that for years it has been completely riddled with holes.”

The Israeli military has since stepped up security along the fence, repairing breaches, digging trenches to prevent vehicle crossings and deploying more soldiers. And Israel’s security cabinet approved more than $100 million to build an additional 25 miles of the barrier.

The struggle for some Palestinians to reach Al Aqsa is part of a broader confrontation over control of the mosque compound — known to Jews as Temple Mount, the site of an ancient temple and the holiest place in Judaism — and the ancient heart of Jerusalem, known as the Old City.

Israel captured the Old City from Jordan in 1967, along with the rest of East Jerusalem. Israel has since annexed the area as part of its capital, but much of the world, including the United Nations Security Council, considers it occupied territory.

Palestinians see East Jerusalem as the future capital of a Palestinian state. Some fear the mosque compound is under threat from increasing numbers of Jewish worshipers allowed to enter and pray atop the mount, and from a fringe group of right-wing activists who seek to rebuild the Jewish temple there.

Tensions exploded into clashes over the past two weeks between Palestinians and Israeli paramilitary police. At times, the police forced Palestinians from parts of the site or confined them inside mosques to secure access for tourists and Jewish worshipers.

Last Friday, the Israeli authorities turned away droves of Palestinians, especially men, on their way from the West Bank to attend Friday Prayers at Al Aqsa.

The Israeli authorities did not respond to questions about how many Palestinians from the West Bank and Gaza had applied to visit the mosque this Ramadan nor how many were rejected.

For young men, especially, Aqsa seems out of reach. Ibrahim, a 24-year-old university student from Bethlehem, compared an Israeli permit to a golden ticket: “It’s like Willy Wonka, very few get it.”

Ibrahim, who did not want his last name published, enters Jerusalem legally with a medical permit, then visits Al Aqsa. For him, the trip is not about religion. It’s about visiting a place important to Palestinian identity and quietly confronting Israel’s occupation.

“You put up police and security guards, but I am able to enter anyway,” he said. “It’s about asserting our existence.”

Mr. Misk applied for a permit in 2015, when he was in college, and was rejected. He said he was told only that his rejection was “for security reasons.”

The next week he went in with a smuggler and has not bothered applying for another permit since.

“Going to Mecca to visit the Kaaba is easier for us than coming here to Al Aqsa,” he said. “If I want to go to Mecca, I apply for a visa and I go. But if I want to come to Al Aqsa, I have to take a risk and go over the wall and I could be shot and killed.”

One day this month, Mr. Misk tried to cross into Israel with some friends through a wooded area and was caught by Israeli soldiers. The soldiers zip-tied their hands behind their backs and had them lie face down on the ground for six hours, he said, before marching them back to the West Bank and releasing them.

The next day he paid a smuggler $15 to get him over the barrier.

As Mousa Naser waited his turn recently to scale the wall, dozens of men who had crossed before him were caught on the other side. When the soldiers took the men away, Mr. Naser and others made a dash for it.

But getting over the wall is not the only hurdle.

On Wednesday, several Palestinians suffered broken bones after falling from the top of the wall, the Palestinian Red Crescent said.

At checkpoints throughout East Jerusalem, the Old City and at the many entrances to the mosque compound, Israeli police routinely stop people, especially young men, and demand to see their IDs. Those lacking the proper paperwork can be arrested.

Mr. Naser’s strategy is to try to blend in.

“There are things that can let the police know if you are from the West Bank or not,” said Mr. Naser, a 25-year-old bank employee. “They can tell from your face if there is fear, they can tell from the lines on your forehead. And they know from your shoes.”

In the West Bank young men favor jeans, button-up shirts and don’t wear many brand names, he said. In Jerusalem the style is dominated by athleisure, running shoes and a cornucopia of brand names.

“Style of clothes plays a big role in not getting caught,” he said. “It doesn’t protect 100 percent but it helps a lot.”

Jamal Karame, 53, said that 13 years ago he was convicted of harboring a wanted person and was imprisoned for two years. He denies the charge.

Since then he has been unable to get a permit to come to Jerusalem, and each time he goes to a checkpoint, he is turned away. So he resorted to sneaking across.

“The occupation needs to give people a chance to live their lives so that people don’t have a counterreaction,” Mr. Karame, an electrician from Hebron. “It’s bad enough that we are already living under occupation, but you are also preventing me from praying in Al Aqsa.”

As he walks around the compound, his fingers move swiftly through a string of white prayer beads. On each bead is a silver etching of the Kaaba or the Prophet’s Mosque in Medina. He recalled how, when he was a child, his father would bring him to play in the mosque compound. Back then the journey took less than an hour and there were no checkpoints.

He wishes he could bring his own six children here with the same ease.

“If we don’t pray in Al Aqsa,” he said, “who will?”

Myra Noveck and Gabby Sobelman contributed reporting.

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