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Scott Peterson, Getty Images

Feature Story

Islamic Schools around al-Aqsa Mosque Face Tough Choices amid Israel’s War on Gaza

Snapshot

Since Israel launched its war on Gaza on October 7, 2023, Palestinian schools in the Haram al-Sharif compound have been facing the difficult decision of whether to revert to online learning. With increased Israeli restrictions, as well as harassment and searches at the gates to the al-Aqsa Mosque compound, the safety of students, administrators, and staff of several Islamic schools is at risk. Jerusalem Story spoke with students and a Palestinian religious leader to understand more about the serious impact of the war on the daily lives of Jerusalem’s Palestinians.

Hamza Totah, the principal of the private all-boys Riyad al-Aqsa School located within Jerusalem’s Haram al-Sharif, made a surprise decision the second week of November. With 78 students and 7 classrooms, Totah decided to revert to online learning upon the advice of the Palestinian Ministry of Education.

While the decision of the Palestinian ministry came as a result of a shortage of money to pay teachers, Totah had a different motivation. The ability of students and teachers to attend schools inside the Haram al-Sharif complex has become unbearable since the war on Gaza began on October 7. Students, administrators, and teachers have been unable to reach the schools, and residents of the Old City who were able to access the gates of the al-Aqsa Mosque faced harassment by Israeli police, including having their school bags searched and their textbooks confiscated.

Mohammad, a student from the Old City who requested to remain anonymous for fear of Israeli retribution, told Jerusalem Story: “Every day, the police physically stop and search students and even employees of the waqf, including teachers and staff of the schools. No one is allowed to enter al-Aqsa, where their workplaces are located, without being physically searched, even though the police know and see the employees of the Jordanian waqf department daily.”

The school to which Mohammad was referring, a Jordanian waqf-run sharia school also within the Haram al-Sharif, refused to make the hard decision to revert to online learning. As a result, the school’s 228 students continue to face acute hardships. Not only is everyone subject to security-related physical inspection but students face additional searches, namely, the content of their books. If Israeli forces find pictures of the Palestinian flag or the logo of the Palestinian Authority in their books, they are arrested.

A young Palestinian is searched by Israeli police at the intersection of Via Dolorosa, the path that Jesus took through Jerusalem en route to the crucifixion, in Jerusalem’s Old City on December 2, 2023. Israeli police have increased their stop-and-frisk operations against Palestinians, mostly young men, since the start of the war on Gaza on October 7.

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: Scott Peterson, Getty Images

Another student who requested to remain anonymous, Ahmed Rami, was subjected to searches every time he passed through the Lions’ Gate on his way to school in the Haram al-Sharif compound. He said, “Israeli police officers deliberately delay us for a long time until school classes start, to the point that my father asked me not to go to school fearing for my well-being.”

The situation is also dire for Sheikh Mazen Ahram, a 70-year-old former imam who now gives special religious classes to adults. On Fridays, he teaches lessons in the Sayyiduna Ahmad ibn ‘Alawiyya zawiya, which is located on the northern side of the compound, opposite the Dome of the Rock overlooking the King Faisal Gate. Since the war on Gaza, he and many of his colleagues have not been able to reach the Sufi zawiya due to Israeli restrictions and out of fear of the toxic, racist harassment around the Haram al-Sharif.

Sheik Ahram told Jerusalem Story that he makes a special effort to come to the al-Aqsa Mosque on Fridays to teach, pray, and simply be present. “It is my duty to be present at al-Aqsa on Fridays and other days to confirm our presence in the first two qiblas,” he explained. “This is a duty for all of us if the Israeli authorities do not allow young people to reach it. Jerusalem without al-Aqsa has no meaning for us.”

Sheikh Ahram bitterly complains about the Israeli restrictions, explaining the suffering he faces to reach al-Aqsa Mosque because of the many checkpoints inside the Old City and the aggressive Israeli inspection. There is no clarity as to who is allowed into al-Aqsa Mosque. He describes that, “The Israeli police officers alone make the decision according to their mood, or the way you look at them, or how you answer their questioning.”

“The Israeli police officers alone make the decision according to their mood, or the way you look at them, or how you answer their questioning.”

Mazen Ahram

Sheikh Mazen Ahram, 70, former imam in Jerusalem’s al-Aqsa Mosque compound, now teaches adult religious classes at the Sayyiduna Ahmad ibn ‘Alawiyya zawiya, north of the compound.

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Jerusalem Story Team

The senior sheikh also recalled the days when he was a student, including an incident that is still etched in his memory: “I received my education at the Tanakazi School in Bab al-Silsila, and one day, we went to the school to discover that the Israeli army had occupied it, turned it into their headquarters, and expelled us from it to this day.” Sheikh Ahram noted that the books are still there, which saddens him: “Every time I pass by my school, which was the scene of my childhood days, I feel a pang in my heart and a state of frustration and depression at how this huge, beautiful, and important educational edifice has been turned into a military barracks.”

The daily lives of Palestinian worshippers, employees, and students of the Haram al-Sharif compound have been severely impacted by Israel’s war on Gaza. Palestinians in Jerusalem understand that they, like their brothers and sisters in Gaza, are paying a high price for insisting on being free. But some institutions are weighing the options of staying open and weathering Israeli repression. The Rawdat al-Aqsa School, which had reverted to online learning, used the past weeks to renovate and paint the school. And seeing that other schools, including the waqf-run school, have continued to operate, the school’s administration decided to resume regular operations.

Students and parents, however, have mixed feelings. While they prefer in-person education, they are still concerned about the continued harassment by Israeli occupation forces.