“I told the police officer that I was over 70 years old,” Saeed Abdullah explains to Jerusalem Story.1 “And this was clear from the identity card he was examining, but he refused to let me into al-Aqsa Mosque,” even though Israeli police have only been allowing the elderly above certain ages to enter the mosque compound for prayer.2 A resident of the Ras al-Amud neighborhood of East Jerusalem, Abdullah describes the dire situation he and other Palestinians have been facing in Jerusalem since the start of the October 7 war. “Rather, the officer contacted officers at the rest of the gates of al-Aqsa and told them not to let me in if I tried to enter through them.”
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Al-Aqsa Mosque under “Unprecedented” Israeli Restrictions since October 7: Palestinian Religious Leaders Are Afraid to Speak
Israel has imposed strict restrictions on Palestinian worshippers at the Haram al-Sharif compound in the Old City since the start of the war on Gaza on October 7. This is especially visible on Fridays. But many Palestinians are too afraid to object to or speak of these unprecedented changes due to Israel’s clampdown on freedom of speech.
Apart from one Friday since the war, Abdullah was banned for weeks from attending Friday prayers at al-Aqsa Mosque. He was visibly frustrated: “By God, it is forbidden for me to pray at al-Aqsa while there are no restrictions on Jews’ access to al-Buraq [the Wailing Wall] in the hundreds every day.”
Abdullah describes it as an Israeli attempt to terrorize Muslim worshippers from daring to come and pray at Islam’s third holiest site. “There is an atmosphere of fear prevailing among the people of the city of Jerusalem due to recent Israeli measures under the pretext of Israel’s war on the Gaza Strip and its declaration of a state of emergency.” Despite this injustice, Abdullah continues, “It is highly unlikely that anyone will talk openly about what is happening at al-Aqsa for fear of oppressive repercussions by the Israeli security services.”
What happened with Abdullah is not an exception. Rather, it is happening to thousands of Palestinian Jerusalemites who have been prevented since October 7 from entering al-Aqsa, which Israel has completely sealed off and emptied of worshippers. According to figures issued by the Islamic Waqf Department, since the war, the number of Friday worshipers at the al-Aqsa Mosque, and the Haram al-Sharif compound more broadly, has ranged between 2,500 and 5,000.3 This is a steep drop from the 60,000 Friday worshippers at the site before the war.4 During the holy month of Ramadan, the number of worshippers on Fridays can swell to 250,000.5
In contrast to the restrictions on Palestinian worshippers, heavily guarded Jewish groups have been given open access to the Haram al-Sharif compound in what Palestinians refer to as “stormings.” Sources at the Jordanian Waqf Ministry indicate that there was a spate of Jewish groups storming the compound in the days immediately following the war, and in organized time slots in the mornings and afternoons. They add that, while each visit normally lasted half an hour before this war, since October 7, they have extended it to an hour.6
A source who preferred to remain anonymous explained to Jerusalem Story that the Islamic Waqf Department in Jerusalem filed a complaint with Israeli authorities objecting to the extension of the time given to the Jewish group “visits” to the mosque esplanade as a violation of the standing agreement regarding the city’s holy sites.7 But the objection was ignored. Instead, employees of the Islamic Waqf Department have been harassed by the Israeli police, who have increased their presence at all the gates to the holy site.
Conflicting Numbers Tell Different Stories
Israel has evidently told Western diplomatic officials that the number of these Jewish groups entering the al-Aqsa compound protected by the Israeli police has decreased in size, and that extremists have been encouraged to stay out in order not to provoke the Muslim worshippers.8 But research by the Jordanian Waqf Ministry refutes this claim.
Official numbers gathered by Jordanian authorities in Amman demonstrate that, apart from the first days following the war, the number of Jews who stormed the Haram al-Sharif compound has not decreased. Before the war, the number of daily “stormers” ranged between 80 and 120; since then, this number has remained the same except for the first two days after October 7, when the number each day was approximately 76.9
The total number of Jews who stormed the complex throughout 2022 was approximately 48,000. As of October 11, 2023, the number had already reached 43,000, and it is estimated that it will reach 48,000 by the end of 2023.10
Israeli police prevent the Palestinians who manage the Haram al-Sharif compound from approaching these Jewish groups, and even just from photographing them. Anyone who violates this is immediately arrested and summoned to court, which routinely approves the request of the police to ban them from the compound for lengthy periods. But this is Israel’s “status quo” at the holy site. Indeed, the only visible change at al-Aqsa since the war began has been the huge decrease in the number of Muslim worshippers, despite Israel’s claims otherwise.
Jerusalem Story contacted an Israeli police spokesperson who denied that any change of policy has occurred at the Haram al-Sharif since October 7. The spokesperson declared that:
There has been no change to the existing routine on the Temple Mount for many years, even during the war. The prayer services of the Muslims are conducted as usual in al-Aqsa. In addition, the visits to the site are in accordance with the visitation rules that have been in place for many years, during the approved visiting hours and days. This has been the case regarding the site, and it will continue to be as such.11
Jerusalem Story then inquired about the extensive searches Israeli police have been conducting on Palestinians in the Old City. The spokesperson replied: “In accordance with the security situation, increased searches are being carried out in the Old City by the Jerusalem District Police in order to maintain order and security, and to prevent incitement and disturbances of any kind.” However, the spokesperson ignored a follow-up question about whether Israel was imposing an age limit on Muslim worshippers entering the Haram al-Sharif.
But Palestinians and other eyewitnesses vehemently deny these claims. Israeli lawyer and founder of Ir Amim and Terrestrial Jerusalem, Daniel Seidemann, often takes senior international officials on tours around Jerusalem.12 He told Jerusalem Story that “the police statement is inaccurate. On Fridays, entry to the esplanade is allowed only to those above the age of 45.” Seidemann explained that this has “happened frequently in the past, but only under circumstances such as these”—referring to the war on Gaza. “Young people are stopped at roadblocks before getting to the old City,” he went on, even though “the police have been less aggressive at the gates and on the esplanade.” Despite the restrictions at the Haram al-Sharif compound, Seidemann concluded, “Prayers have been taking place without incident elsewhere in East Jerusalem. The actions of Israeli security services resemble militias enforcing martial law.”
While Saeed Abdullah had difficulty entering the esplanade—though he eventually did—Sheikh Mazen Ahram, 70, a religious leader and teacher, told Jerusalem Story that he was able to enter the compound, but that he is saddened to see it empty of Muslim worshippers.13 “This is a very cruel and sad scene, as the courtyards and houses of worship are empty except for some elderly men.”
“What is even more heartbreaking,” he went on, “is seeing police officers wandering around al-Aqsa Mosque in a provocative way without any reverence to the holy place or the fact that this is a Muslim shrine.” He elaborated, “The worst is when you see the Israeli security wandering around the mosque’s square during the prayer hour.” Sheikh Ahram called this Israeli action “an unprecedented development since the occupation of the city in 1967.”
Israeli security services impose strict measures on the holy site throughout the week, but they intensify greatly on Fridays. Israel uses these measures as a pretext to prevent any protests that might occur after prayer in a setting of massed Palestinians due to the war on Gaza. As one of the worshippers who succeeded in getting into the mosque compound told Jerusalem Story, the very mention of the word Gaza—or anything close to being seen as supporting Gaza—may lead you to the Israeli investigation room on charges of incitement. The fact that the speaker asked not to be identified indicates the immense psychological terror that Palestinian worshippers and religious leaders are currently experiencing.
Based on an interview conducted by the Jerusalem Story Team with Saeed Abdullah on November 19, 2023.
Israel regularly and arbitrarily changes the age restriction it imposes on Palestinian worshippers wishing to enter the al-Aqsa Mosque complex to pray, sometimes banning them altogether. At the start of the October 7 war, the age restriction was set at 70, but it was dropped to 65 later in the month. Ahmed Asmar, “Al-Aqsa Mosque Almost Empty of Worshippers as Israeli Police Restrict Entry,” AA, October 13, 2023; Abdelraouf Arna’out, “Israel Restricts Palestinian Access to al-Aqsa Mosque for 2nd Friday in Row,” AA, October 20, 2023.
“Israel Keeps Tight Curbs on Jerusalem’s al-Aqsa Holy Site, 5,000 Pray,” Reuters, October 27, 2023.
Louisa Loveluck and Claire Parker, “Violence Spreads to West Bank, Tel Aviv as Threat of Wider Conflict Fades,” Washington Post, April 7, 2023.
The New Arab Staff, “More than 250,000 Attend Fourth Friday Prayer of Ramadan at Jerusalem’s al-Aqsa Mosque,” The New Arab, April 14, 2023.
Based on information gathered by the author from a member of the Jordanian Waqf Ministry since October 7. For more details on the “stormings” during the first week of the war, see the New Arab Staff, “Israeli Settlers storm al-Aqsa Mosque Compound under Police Protection, amid Gaza Onslaught,” The New Arab, October 22, 2023.
Based on an interview conducted with a Palestinian who asked to remain unidentified on November 21, 2023.
Based on information gathered by the author from a member of the Jordanian Waqf Ministry since October 7.
Based on information gathered by the author from a member of the Jordanian Waqf Ministry since October 7.
For 2022 figures, see “48,000 Israeli Settlers Stormed al-Aqsa Mosque during 2022,” Middle East Monitor, December 30, 2022. Figures for 2023 are based on information gathered by the author from a member of the Jordanian Waqf Ministry since October 7.
Based on an interview by the Jerusalem Story Team with an Israeli police spokesperson on November 22, 2023.
Based on an interview conducted by Jerusalem Story with Daniel Seidemann on November 22, 2023.
Based on an interview conducted by Jerusalem Story with Sheikh Ahram on November 21, 2023.