Ramadan in Israel: A holy, violent month

Jake Pemberton

14 min read
Palestinian women walk past decorative lights set up for the holy Muslim month of Ramadan, in Jerusalem's Old City, April 12, 2021.
AP Photo/Mahmoud IlleanPalestinian women walk past decorative lights set up for the holy Muslim month of Ramadan, in Jerusalem's Old City, April 12, 2021.

'When you deny the rights of people for a long time and put them under pressure, the reaction will be violent'

“Palestinians get a lot of oppression and pressure, it takes time for a reaction,” said Palestinian activist Samer Sinijlawi, adding, "We have created the weather, and the storm is coming."

Ramadan, the Muslim faith’s holiest month, is a time of prayer and reflection. But in Israel, the holiday season also comes with violence, as Israeli-Palestinian tensions tend to peak.

Last year, rioting in mixed Arab-Israeli cities and rockets between Israel and Hamas - Gaza's de facto governing body - plagued the holy month. 

While there have been no rockets fired this year, the violence has been plenty, especially in the weeks leading up to Ramadan with a wave of unanticipated, nationalistic attacks:

- March 22: Four people killed in Israel’s south by a single attacker, an Israeli citizen affiliated to the Islamic State (IS)

- March 27: Two Border Police officers killed by two gunmen in Israel’s north - both Israeli citizens - an attack also claimed by IS

- March 29: Five people killed in central Israel by a Palestinian from the West Bank, previously affiliated to Fatah's al-Aqsa Martyrs' Brigades  

Though considered a terror wave by Israelis, Palestinians consider these attacks as exceptions to the norm; people at their breaking points snapping at the status quo

“We call it ‘atmospheric terror attacks,’” said Neri Zilber, an advisor to the Israel Policy Forum.

“You can have an Arab-Israeli IS-sympathizer from Israel’s south, two from up north, and one from the West Bank, all drawing inspiration from the attack before,” he added.

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The wave of terror has led observers to be concerned about what else is yet to come during Ramadan.

Though considered a terror wave by Israelis, Palestinians consider these attacks as exceptions to the norm; people at their breaking points fed up with the feeling of helplessness.

Jerusalem, once a symbol of peace, “is becoming the city of least peace in the world,” said Sinijlawi, chairman of the Jerusalem Development Fund.

Ramadan

In the Muslim faith, Ramadan marks the revelation of the Quran - God’s message to the Holy Prophet Muhammed.

A pillar of Islam, celebrating this occurrence is a way to honor Muhammed and work on self-control by fasting and praying throughout the month.

“Ramadan changes the social patterns in society. The family becomes the center of everything,” Sinijlawi told i24NEWS, after wishing a “Ramadan Kareem.”

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Ramadan in Israel

In Israel - which is home to over 1.6 million Muslims, almost 20 percent of the Jewish state’s population - Ramadan is regularly stained by violent escalation.

From the Palestinian point of view, Israeli officials have a history of using Ramadan to stoke tensions, leading to the labels of violence and escalation being synonymous with the holy month.

Friction surrounding the Israeli-Palestinian conflict usually only simmers, whether it's from Jewish settler violence in the West Bank, Palestinian attacks on Israeli security forces, or evictions of Palestinian families like in the case of Shiekh Jarrah.

“Both societies have hatred, and we need to fight it,” Sinijlawi said.

Such pressure regularly explodes in the weeks leading up to, during, and shortly after Ramadan, a cycle that both sides blame the other for.

"Ramadan emphasizes Israel’s control over the [al-Aqsa] mosque and over Jerusalem."

Only days into the holiday, Israeli authorities killed three members of the Palestinian Islamic jihad who were allegedly about to carry out an attack and arrested another suspect the day after.

Zilber, a Tel Aviv-based journalist, explained to i24NEWS that tensions spike with spiritual emotions, adding that motivating factors for violent acts are religious and fundamentalist.

AP Photo/Mahmoud Illean
AP Photo/Mahmoud IlleanPalestinians wearing the Palestinian flag during clashes with Israeli security forces at the al-Aqsa Mosque compound in Jerusalem's Old City, June 18, 2021.

Al-Aqsa Mosque

One of the most sensitive sites in the Middle East conflict between Muslims and Jews, especially during Ramadan, is the al-Aqsa Mosque in Jerusalem’s Old City.

The al-Aqsa compound - known by Jews as the Temple Mount - is holy to both the Muslim and Jewish faiths.

Since Israel captured east Jerusalem in the 1967 Six-Day War, a fragile arrangement has prevailed at the site: only Muslims are permitted to worship on the sacred hill, while Jews pray at the adjacent Western Wall.

The status quo holds that the Waqf - the Jordanian Islamic religious authority - has responsibility for al-Aqsa, and under Jewish religious custom, Jews cannot enter the site for fear of stepping on sacred ground.

However, this custom is being increasingly shifted, with growing numbers of religious and nationalistic Jews seeking to pray at the site. 

While the Waqf is the official overseer of the compound, in reality, Israeli authorities supervise security and entry limits at the site, and sometimes reportedly turn a blind eye to Jewish worshippers openly praying there.

Dr. Nimrod Goren, president and founder of Mitvim - The Israeli Institute for Regional Foreign Policies, said “Ramadan emphasizes Israel’s control over the [al-Aqsa] mosque and over Jerusalem,” adding that the combination of religious, social, and political issues converge.

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Sinijlawi, a member of the Palestinian nationalist, social-democratic Fatah party, attributed much of the Israeli-Palestinian disconnect to a “cultural gap.”

For example, the Muslim faith calls for women to cover their heads when in the compound and for observers to fast as long as there is daylight during Ramadan.

“I see Israeli women police officers not covering their heads in al-Aqsa, carrying water bottles, and drinking in public. Tradition must be upheld,” Sinijlawi urged.

Damascus Gate

In observing Ramadan, young Muslims mass at Damascus Gate - one of the main entrances to Jerusalem’s Old City.

Nazmi Jubeh, a professor at Birzeit University in the West Bank, has called the gate “a symbol for the Palestinian struggle.”

"Many feel that nothing has changed since the last confrontation between Israel and the Palestinians."

"Young people at Bab al-Amud [Damascus Gate] are not a security threat. But Israeli officials only see it that way," Sinijlawi said.

"It's the only time out of the year that the young population can all meet outside, at a place that they love."

Last April, tens of thousands of Muslims flocked the gate and al-Aqsa, as many Palestinian residents from the West Bank lined up at Israeli checkpoints before being admitted into Jerusalem.

Amid the cloud of Covid and to bolster security, Israeli police set up barricades to prevent people from sitting at the entrance, prompting clashes between Palestinians and authorities on a nightly basis.

Olivier Fitoussi/Flash90
Olivier Fitoussi/Flash90Israeli undercover police officers arrest a man during clashes with protesters at Damascus Gate in Jerusalem's Old City, April 3, 2022

Those clashes sparked the 2021 Israel-Gaza war and spilled over into Israel’s mixed cities of Jewish and Arab populations.

“Many feel that nothing has changed since the last confrontation between Israel and the Palestinians,” said Yohanan Tzoreff, a senior fellow researcher at the Institute for National Security Studies.

“I hope that something was concluded from what happened last year… to not let this friction escalate” more than it already has, Tzoreff told i24NEWS.

Muslims, Jews, Christians

This year is unique in a way. 

The holy month alone brings an increased rate of pilgrimage to Jerusalem, meaning “more Palestinians in one area,” Zilber said.

Ramadan this year, though, coincides with the Jewish holiday Passover, as well as the Christian celebration of Easter, prompting Israeli authorities to deem this April as “especially sensitive.”

“There are more people, and therefore more friction in the Old City,” Zilber added.

"Avoiding the Palestinian question gives extremists from both sides more time to do what they do best and allows more innocent lives to be taken."

In a state of high alert, Israel boosted its troop presence along the Gaza border, in the West Bank, and in major cities across the country, like Jerusalem, which Sinijlawi said “becomes the focus of everything."

Jerusalem is important to the three religions: al-Aqsa for Muslims, the Western Wall for Jews, and the Church of the Holy Sepulchre for Christians.

“No Israeli can claim he loves Jerusalem more than me,” Sinijlawi continued, adding that Israel’s political system “does not take this into consideration.”

“Israel sees [Jerusalem] as exclusive for Jews only,” he told i24NEWS.

Unlike last year, Israeli police did not place barriers around the plaza this time around, and officers in Jerusalem are reportedly making an effort to let Muslims celebrate accordingly.

But on Sunday - the second day of Ramadan - clashes broke out at Damascus Gate, leading to a dozen Palestinians being arrested.

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While much of Israel’s security apparatus is preparing for the next flame that could spark further escalation, some remain cautiously optimistic that tensions will remain limited.

“We are talking about a situation that is not the same as it was last year. Many sides have a lot to lose,” Tzoreff speculated.

Still, provocation could prove dire. 

“We know Jewish right-wing fundamentalists are demanding access to Temple Mount because it’s Passover, so that leads to provocation by Palestinians and oftentimes draws a response,” Zilber told i24NEWS.

He added that increased Israeli security - police presence in major cities or restricted access in Jerusalem - “might help stop terror attacks and project greater security on the streets, but could also increase tensions.”

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Sinijlawi emphasized that security is not the problem, but instead is “deep-rooted in religion and society.”

“When you deny the rights of the people for a long time and put them under pressure, the reaction will be violent.”

“Avoiding the Palestinian question gives extremists from both sides more time to do what they do best, and allows more innocent lives to be taken,” he warned.

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