It's Friday, there are demonstrations — and a surprise TOTAL CLOSURE of the West Bank

It was a lovely, sunny, warm spring-like morning in Ramallah. It was Friday — the day off work, the day of the Friday prayer for Muslims, who would prefer to pray at Al-Aqsa Mosque in the Old City of East Jerusalem, if they could…if they could get a permit.

Friday is also the day of demonstrations … after at Friday prayers — at The Wall in Bil’il, Nil’in, Ma’asara, Nebi Salah…and now also, with mainly Israeli participants, at Sheikh Jarrah in East Jerusalem, north of the Old City. The Israeli Defense Forces disagree with the organizers of these demonstrations, who call the demonstrations “non-violent”. No, for the IDF, they are “violent”, because the demonstrators may “attack” (i.e., try to cross or to dismantle) the Wall, or the Fence (as the Wall is configured, in rural areas), or because some may “hurl” stones at Israeli jeeps or soldiers, once tear-gas and stun grenades and rubber bullets are fired as a method of “crowd control” (normally, a duty carried out by police, not by armed soldiers).

When there are clashes elsewhere, they almost always spread to the narrow bottleneck that Qalandia has become, where hundreds of thousands of people a day are squeezed through, if they are lucky, in scenes that are a terrifying and stressful nightmare. The whole humiliating and often-terrifying ordeal of passing through Qalandia is mainly designed to check documents and papers — to make sure that someone is allowed, by virture of where he or she resides, to enter Jerusalem, or that they have “permits”. For those allowed to pass in cars, there is a “security inspection” of the trunks and contents of vehicles.

Continue reading It's Friday, there are demonstrations — and a surprise TOTAL CLOSURE of the West Bank

Palestinian Police deploy up to Qalandia checkpoint for first Friday in Ramadan

For the first time in years, or perhaps ever, Palestinian traffic policemen were allowed to deploy up to the concrete barriers at the entry to the main Qalandia checkpoint today,
which Israeli officials refer to as a “border crossing”, on the road between Jerusalem and Ramallah.

It was a real departure on the first Friday in Ramadan 2009, as thousands of Palestinian men and women and children endured heat and serial military checks in order to be able to go to pray during this special month at the Al-Aqsa Mosque in the Old City of East Jerusalem.

(The lunar calendar used by Muslims means that the month of Ramadan starts about 11 days earlier every year. Roughly every 36 years, Ramadan rotates through the hottest and longest days of summer.)

One sunny Palestinian traffic policeman helping pedestrians cross through the constant flow of cars and vans said that the deployment had been done in coordination with the Israeli military, and that for now the Palestinian deployment would be just for Fridays during Ramadan, at least for now. “We hope we can come every Friday, and then every day, and that we can also go into Jerusalem to pray”. He said that he is now 34 years old, and according to current Israeli policy, he will not be free to pray in Jerusalem for another 16 years. He said he came from the Old City of Nablus, and that he was one of between 20-24 Palestinian traffic policemen selected for the special task. “Ukhti” (My sister), he called to beckon one woman to cross the street.

“We are here”, he explained, “but without guns”. However, he said, they did not really need guns, because “many people tell us it’s a great day, and it’s good, that they finally see us on the street here. Some drivers even stopped in surprise”, he reported.

Another Palestinian traffic policeman said that there were about 15 Palestinian policemen on duty at Qalandia. Palestinian security cars were lined up and parked just at the entrance into the Qalandia perimeter — an extremely rare sight.

Precisely because there has been no civilian traffic control allowed anywhere near the Israeli military, Qalandia checkpoint has, until now, been the the site of frequent traffic snarls and intimidating traffic congestion where cars have to fight to advance every single centimeter.
The aggressive young beggars that operate in the areas where cars waiting to pass through Qalandia add another layer of misery and stress for the trapped motorists.

For the four Fridays in Ramadan, vehicular traffic has been banned from just after midnight until 3 pm in the afternoon.

Palestinian mini-vans and buses were surprisingly organized, and dispatchers with neon-green vests and megaphones urged the stream of Palestinians onto transport into Jerusalem. The prayer-goers would face at least one other military check at Damascus Gate in the Old City Wall. It was later reported that five Palestinians were arrested, a few for “carrying knives” and one for being from Gaza but not having a permit.

This year, like last year, only men over 50 years old, and only women over 45 years old, are eligible for entry into Jerusalem for the Friday prayers during Ramadan, a holy month which commemorates the revelation of the Qur’an. For the entire month of Ramadan, adults fast completely (and do not even drink water) from two hours before sunrise until sundown. The idea is to give the body a rest, and to develop solidarity with the poor who are often not able to eat and drink as they need.

Men between 45 and 50 may apply for special permits issued for the four Fridays in Ramadan, and women between 30 and 45 were also eligible to apply — but UN officials said that all the Palestinians all had to be married to qualify for the special permits. Apparently, children under 12 could accompany their parents.

Despite the noticeably better Israeli organization implemented by the Israeli military authorities at Qalandia, there were far fewer Palestinians trying to pass through Qalandia today than during the first Friday of Ramadan last year. “Where are the thousands of Palestinians who cannot get into Jerusalem and who ususally come to protest?”, asked one woman from the Israeli organization Machsom Watch. One Palestinian policeman said that it was only the first Friday of Ramadan, and predicted that the numbers would increase in the coming weeks. However, a UN official noted that the fourth Friday of Ramadan this year coincides with a major Jewish holiday, and predicted that Palestinian traffic into Jerusalem from the occupied West Bank would be reduced to a trickle.

According to a tally from the observers with the Ecumenical Accompaniers program (EAPPI) of the World Council of Churches, just over 16,000 Palestinians passed through Qalandia going into Jerusalem between 0600 and 1130 in the morning.  Last year, EAPPI said that 36,000 Palestinians passed through Qalandia in more-or-less the same time period, between 0600 and 1200.

Israeli officials later reported that 90,000 Muslims were at the Friday prayers (the exact same figure as last year) up on the Haram as-Sharif plateau on which Al-Aqsa Mosque and the Dome of the Rock are both built. Palestinians from East Jerusalem, who are legal residents of Israel, and Israel’s own Arab/Palestinian citizens had free access to Al-Aqsa. (The Haram as-Sharif plateau has a reported capacity of 300,000).

What all the effort and longing is all about — Al-Aqsa and Dome of the Rock on the first Friday in Ramadan

With many thanks to a contributor who wishes to remain anonymous, here are some photos taken at Friday noon and evening prayers at Al-Aqsa Mosque (where, if there are large numbers, only the men will pray) and the Dome of The Rock (ususally reserved for women), on the Haram as-Sharif mosque esplanade in the Old City of East Jerusalem.

The first picture shows the Sabil water fountain outside Al-Aqsa Mosque, the next shows people leaving Al-Aqsa after the main Friday prayer, the following five pictures are views of the Dome of the Rock; and the last is Al-Aqsa itself, on Friday night.

First Friday in Ramadan - Al-Aqsa Mosque - noon prayers

The First Friday of Ramadan - people leaving Al-Aqsa Mosque after main Friday prayer

First Friday in Ramadan - Dome of the Rock - evening prayers and crescent moon

First Friday in Ramadan - Dome of the Rock - evening prayers

First Friday in Ramadan - women praying at the Dome of the Rock - 5 Sept 08

First Friday in Ramadan - Dome of the Rock at night - 5 Sept 08

First Friday in Ramadan - Al-Aqsa Mosque at night - 5 Sept 08

Al-Aqsa prayers on fourth Friday in Ramadan – and Ramadan traffic jams

Today is the fourth Friday in Ramadan, and some 3,000 Israeli police and soldiers have been deployed, Kol Israel radio reported this morning, to ensure security at prayers at Al-Aqsa mosque.

The Jerusalem Post reported that: “Jerusalem Police were on high alert ahead of the final Friday Muslim prayers of Ramadan in the Old City”.

Kol Israel’s report said that “Arab Israelis” — presumably including Palestinian residents of Jerusalem, who are not “citizens” but who have permanent residency status — can access Al-Aqsa freely for prayers, but “young” people from the West Bank cannot. For those from Gaza, of course, it has long been out of the question.

Helicopters were heard flying overhead in northern districts of Jerusalem, far from the Old City — presumably on their way to Qalandia/Kalandia checkpoint, where thousands of believers prayed last week facing water cannons and police and soldiers in riot formation.

The AP later reported that “Thousands of Palestinians thronged military checkpoints on the outskirts of Jerusalem on Friday, trying to reach a major Muslim shrine in the city for Ramadan prayers despite an Israel Defense Forces closure. IDF troops were deployed at crossing points from the West Bank into Jerusalem to control the crowds trying to get to the Al Aqsa Mosque, Islam’s third-holiest site, before the Muslim holy month of Ramadan draws to a close next week. At the Qalandiyah checkpoint north of Jerusalem, harried troops waved clubs, shouted and occasionally used stun grenades as Palestinians surged toward the roadblock. One elderly man fainted, and was treated by an IDF medic on the scene. No serious injuries were reported. Friday prayers at Al Aqsa regularly draw thousands of worshippers, and crowds are bigger than usual during Ramadan. Israel placed a closure on the West Bank last week citing concern of possible attacks during the seven-day Jewish festival of Sukkot. The festival ended Thursday, and the closure was set to be lifted Saturday night, an IDF spokesperson said. According to the closure orders, police were to allow passage to West Bank men over the age of 50 and women over 40, spokesman Micky Rosenfeld said. More than 3,000 police were stationed around Jerusalem’s Old City to prevent disturbances during the prayers, he said. At Qalandiyah, north of Jerusalem, hundreds of Palestinians, most of them elderly, pushed toward troops controlling access to the passage and argued with police checking ID cards. Maher Walweil, 43, said he left his home in the West Bank city of Nablus at 4 A.M. to get to Jerusalem in time for prayers despite being aware of the age restrictions. ‘There’s a lot of soldiers here. What am I going to do against these soldiers?’ he said.” The AP report on elderly Palestinians trying to get through checkpoints to Al-Aqsa Mosque Friday prayers is here.

Ghaleb, reporting from the spot, said that the Friday prayer this week was “great!” Why? “The numbers”, he said. “Last week there were lots of people, but this week it was packed!” Asked why that made it great, Ghaleb explained “specifically, it makes you happy — well, it made me happy”.

There will apparently be a fifth Friday in Ramadan this year — next week.

It was later estimated that 135,000 worshippers were at Friday prayers at Jerusalem’s Al-Aqsa.

Meanwhile, on a less spiritual side, the Ramadan traffic jams that have plagued the eastern side of Jerusalem since the beginning of the holy month of fasting — as people were rushing madly to be home in time to break their fast and eat the Iftar meal with their families — have been really astonishing, and annoying. The Mount of Olives in East Jerusalem has a symphony of car horns being blown by irate fasting drivers that crescendos around 5 pm every evening. At a major intersection, cars pass furiously on the right and on the left — an astonishing sight. This year is worse than previous years, residents say.

These traffic jams have apparently also been replicated in other Palestinian cities as well. The Ma’an independent Palestinian news agency reported today that “Police in the West Bank city of Hebron said that an unprecedented number of traffic accidents took place Thursday night. In the course of 12 hours, 20 accidents occurred, injuring eight people. 14 accidents took place between 4 PM and 5:30 PM.” The Ma’an report on a record number of traffic jams last evening in Hebron is here.