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Measures which will Determine Calm or Escalation during Ramadan
16 March 2023
As tensions rise in Jerusalem and the region, all concerned parties must take measures to restore and maintain calm in lead up to Ramadan. Recurring clashes and crises on the Haram al-Sharif/Temple Mount (HAS/TM) during Ramadan in previous years have created the assumption that the threat of violence during the Muslim holy month is inevitable. However, analysis of past events indicates that actions taken by Israel and other players have a strong influence on the dynamic of tension. These measures can either cause the friction to escalate into widespread violence or diffuse it to allow the largest religious events in Israel and the Occupied Territories to pass peacefully.

The Muslim holy month of Ramadan will take place this year from March 22 through April 20, immediately followed by the Muslim holiday of Eid al-Fitr on April 21-23 (dates are approximate and may change by a day or two).

Similar to last year, the Jewish holiday of Passover will coincide with the third week of Ramadan during April 5-12.

Over the course of Ramadan, Friday noon prayers are attended by a significant number of Muslim worshippers - nearly 50,000 on some weeks. As religious activities intensify during the last 10 days of Ramadan, the number of worshippers present on the Holy Esplanade throughout the entire day greatly increases. This number substantially rises on the last three days of Ramadan and the two days of Eid al-Fitr, peaking on Lailat al-Qader on April 18, when as many as 200,000 Muslim worshippers are present on the HAS/TM.

During Passover, the number of Jewish visitors to the Holy Compound likewise peaks. It is also a time when the Temple Movements intensify their activities in challenge of the Status Quo-- which affirms that only Muslims are afforded worship rights while Jews have visitation rights. The last days of Passover will overlap with the final 10 days of Ramadan. Muslims will expect Israel to adhere to the norm of prohibiting non-Muslim entry to the HAS/TM during this period. However, as in the past, the Temple Movements will likely demand to ensure Jewish access to the Mount over the course of the entire Passover holiday, leading to an increase in friction.

The Key Lies in the Conduct of Israeli Authorities
While tension and even protest are potentially unavoidable during this sensitive period, the key lies in the conduct of the Israeli police and authorities. Sensible and respectful police policy and conduct will enable tensions to diffuse. However, if the Israeli police attempt to aggressively impose restrictions on Muslim worshippers and/or to allow Jewish violations of the Status Quo to continue unabated, the result will be a quick deterioration and destabilization of the situation.

As demonstrated in the past, restrictions on access or movement impact tens of thousands of Palestinians and completely disrupt daily life in the Old City while instigating hostilities. A clear example is from 2021 when the Israeli police decided to prohibit Palestinians from congregating in the Damascus Gate Plaza during Ramadan. The aggressive police enforcement of this decision against thousands of Palestinians who gathered there as part of Ramadan’s traditional evening festivities sparked an escalation, which combined with the eviction threats in Sheikh Jarrah, led to another war with Hamas and riots throughout mixed Israeli cities.

Moreover, when the police decide to raid the HAS/TM, its use of excessive force disrupts worship, creates havoc in the holy place, and places masses of worshippers at risk. Thousands  are targeted with stun grenades, rubber coated bullets, and indiscriminate use of force.

Such aggressive police measures on the HAS/TM during Ramadan also disrupts daily life in Jerusalem and often quickly spreads, generating violence throughout Israel and the Occupied Territories. Since intense worship activity occurs daily throughout the month, there is less ability to reduce tensions and re-establish calm on the ground. The combination of mass numbers of Muslim pilgrims from within Israel and the West Bank along with real time coverage of incidents on the Holy Esplanade on social media and news channels likewise expands the reach and carries broad implications.

Recommended Measures for Maintaining Calm during Ramadan
The following actions can be taken by the Israeli authorities to reduce the risk of escalation during Ramadan and Passover and are relevant for ensuring stability on the Temple Mount/Haram al-Sharif year-round:

Ensure Freedom of Movement
Any Israeli attempt to restrict Palestinian access or limit entry to the Old City will result in blocking large numbers of visitors, shoppers, and worshippers at checkpoints. In recent years, the Israeli government has also attempted to control the number of Muslim pilgrims visiting the Old City and attending prayers on the HAS/TM by blocking buses from Arab cities in Israel. Infringement on the freedom of movement would likely generate friction and lead to unrest, including beyond Jerusalem, as demonstrated in the past.
Ensure Freedom of Gathering
During Ramadan tens of thousands of Muslims arrive daily to the Old City. People gather in central plazas such as in Damascus Gate or the plaza near Lion's Gate inside the Old City. Any Israeli decision to forbid or limit gathering in such places runs against longstanding traditions, public sentiment, and the spontaneous way in which Palestinians conduct themselves in the Old City during Ramadan. Such restrictions will only serve to increase hostilities.
Ensure Muslim Freedom of Worship on the Haram al-Sharif
The most common way that Israel restricts freedom of worship is in the form of limiting Muslim entry to the Al-Aqsa compound, which is a grave breach of the status quo. This can be carried out in a multitude of ways:
  • Limiting who can access the compound – collective age restrictions are often imposed on Muslim worshippers, specifically to exclude young men from reaching the holy site. These restrictions have time and again proven to be a source of widespread escalation.
  • Limiting when & where Muslims can access the compound – time restrictions have been imposed on worshippers in the past to avoid overlap between non-Muslim visiting hours. When Jewish groups enter the TM/HAS, the police occasionally create “sterile zones” where the groups walk. The enforcement of these sterile zones can be aggressive, with use of excessive force to remove Muslims from their path. During Ramadan, this policy is especially disruptive to the prayers and sanctity of the space. Moreover, such restrictions are perceived as pushing for an abolishment of the status quo with moves towards a temporal and spatial division of the holy space.
  • Limiting what can be brought into the compound – restrictions are sometimes placed on what items Muslims can bring into the compound, including banning illogical items such as food and drink to break the fast in the evening. This serves as another point of tension due to its clear targeting of religious practices.
Beyond the clear violation of worship rights, use of these collective restrictions greatly generates hostilities, while opposition will increase if imposed in parallel to heightened Jewish entry and prayer in the Holy Compound. Such restrictions are seen as both an infringement on Muslim autonomy and Waqf authority in the holy place and an Israeli attempt to permit Jewish prayer while limiting Muslim freedom of worship. All measures must therefore be taken to refrain from imposing collective restrictions on Muslim freedom of movement, access, gathering, and worship.

Ensure Prohibition on Jewish Prayer on the Mount
In clear violation of the status quo, the Israeli police often permit Jewish groups to conduct quiet and communal prayer at the holy site. This breach of the status quo occurs almost daily and serves to link the entry of Jews to the TM/HAS with the ongoing erosion of the status quo. If allowed to continue, it will only serve the interests of those wishing to mobilize East Jerusalemites to defend Al Aqsa during Ramadan. All forms of Jewish prayer on the Mount must be prohibited and denounced in accordance with the Status Quo.
Ensure Enforcement against Provocations and Challenges to the Status Quo
Temple Movement activists and other Jewish visitors persistently attempt to further challenge the status quo by engaging in other banned activity, such as prostration, blowing the shofar, and admittance of ritual or symbolic Jewish/Israeli objects to the holy site. Such actions occur more frequently during Jewish holidays when there is a higher number of Jewish visitors which makes it more challenging for the police to properly monitor. Restricting the size of visiting Jewish groups would help to maintain order more effectively.
Every year as Passover nears, Temple Movements campaign to re-instate the Temple-era lamb sacrifice on the TM/HAS. These campaigns tend to attract the attention of the Palestinian media and last year resulted in Palestinians barricading themselves inside Al Aqsa and subsequently violently dispersed by the police. While the Israeli authorities act to prevent Temple Movement activists from entering the Mount with lambs, their failure to uphold the status quo in other measures sows distrust and stokes fear that Israel is actually bent on initiating a change of arrangements on the HAS/TM.
The Temple Movements’ incendiary actions also extend to around the TM/HAS with masses of Jews congregating and praying at the various gates through which Muslims enter and leave the Holy Compound. When Muslim presence is high – as in during Ramadan – such provocations quickly create friction leading to police intervention which risks escalating the situation.
Tensions can be reduced if the Israeli authorities and politicians were to unequivocally speak out against these provocative moves, work in coordination with Palestinian and Jordanian officials, and take preemptive and decisive action to enforce the status quo on the ground.
Worship Rights Supersedes Visiting Rights
According to the status quo, the overlap between Ramadan and Passover should not affect the management nor arrangements on the Holy Esplanade as it is not a place of Jewish worship. Despite this implicit rule, the police have in the past given precedent to Jewish holidays at the expense of Muslim worshippers. For example, during Tisha B’av - the Jewish day of mourning the Temple’s destruction- Jews were permitted to enter the TM/HAS despite its confluence with the Muslim holiday of Eid al-Adha. The accepted norm is that non-Muslims are not allowed to visit the compound during this holiday.
While non-Muslims possess visiting rights to the Holy Compound, these rights cannot come at the expense of Muslim worship rights. The insistence of the Israeli government and police to permit Jewish visits to the mount during the confluence of Muslim and Jewish holidays constitutes a false equivalence between worship rights and visiting rights, which in turn is a breach of the status quo. When these rights clash and compete, Muslim worship rights must supersede visiting rights.
As noted above, the last days of Passover overlap with the final 10 days of Ramadan – the holiest time of the month. The Al Aqsa compound is usually reserved for Muslim worshippers only, with no visitation. On February 19, Israeli media reported that the Israeli government decided to close the compound to non-Muslims during this period despite the opposition of right-wing extremist and Temple Movement activist, Minister of National Security, Itamar Ben Gvir. While this is a welcomed positive decision, Temple Movement activists and their government supporters are likely to rachet up pressure to change this policy, which would severely undermine Muslim freedom of worship and liable to ignite unrest. All measures must be taken to ensure this policy remains in place.
Ensure Police Restraint while Enhancing Cooperation with the Waqf
The police must be urged to exercise discretion and restraint. Palestinian protests in East Jerusalem are often violently dispersed by the police. This is carried out even in instances where there is no breach of public order or security. Forcefully dispersing protestors should not be a matter of default. Allowing protests to peacefully end of themselves, deferring to the Jordanian Waqf to ensure that protests do not turn violent, and limiting non-Muslim access to the mount have all been proven to contribute more effectively to de-escalation.   
The Israel police should likewise refrain from undermining the Jordanian Waqf or imposing its authority over them. Instead, the police should regard the Waqf - as it has in the past - as an essential partner for calming tensions, solving disagreements, and securing stability on the HAS/TM. For such coordination to be possible, Israel must respect the Waqf's authority in its administration of the holy compound and solve disagreements through dialogue.

This alert was written by Ir Amim Researcher Aviv Tatarsky.
Please address all inquiries to:

Amy Cohen
Director of International Relations & Advocacy
Ir Amim (City of Nations/City of Peoples)
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