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Israeli cabinet debates al-Aqsa mosque restrictions during Ramadan

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Israel’s cabinet has discussed restricting access for some Muslims to the al-Aqsa mosque in Jerusalem during Ramadan, in a move that further inflames tensions during its war with Hamas, especially with the Palestinian citizens of Israel.

Various restrictions were floated at a Sunday evening cabinet meeting held at the behest of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s far-right coalition partners. This included only permitting older Palestinian men and banning others deemed a security risk. Access for women would not change.

While no final decision has been made, the politically charged talks sparked anger on the centre and left of Israeli politics and among leaders of the Palestinian minority within Israel.

“During these four months of war, we dealt every day with how to calm the spirits in Arab society and now they come to make a heavy-handed and irresponsible decision and infringe on the right of Muslims to pray freely in the mosque,” Mansour Abbas, a Palestinian member of the Knesset, told Israeli radio.

Itamar Ben-Gvir, the hardline Israeli national security minister whose support is crucial for Netanyahu, has demanded that only elderly Muslim men from within Israel be allowed in, and that Palestinians from the occupied West Bank, which includes East Jerusalem, be barred completely.

But Merav Ben Ari, an MP with the opposition Yesh Atid party, said such a move to appease Ben-Gvir had potential regional repercussions.

“The entire Middle East could burn on the heels of this decision, which could cost lives, but [Ben-Gvir] doesn’t care,” she said. “Every decision, from getting the hostages back to pilgrimages to the Temple Mount rests with one man only — not with professional security officials, not even with the police who are responsible for the Temple Mount, only the national security minister.”

An Israeli police spokesperson did not respond to a request for comment. A person who answered the phone at the Jerusalem Waqf, the religious body responsible for the mosque and affiliated with the Jordanian government, said they had not received any official notifications.

Israel has controlled access to the al-Aqsa compound, the third holiest in Islam and the holiest in Judaism, after gaining control of the old city of Jerusalem in the 1967 war. Far-right members of Netanyahu’s coalition have pushed for greater access to the compound for Jews, who are allowed to visit during certain hours, but not to pray. Jews pray at the Western Wall, a shared boundary with the al-Aqsa compound.

The site, which is called the Temple Mount by Jews, is the most emotive issue in the Arab-Israeli conflict, and incidents in and around the mosque, and the nearby Dome of the Rock, have triggered rounds of violence, including the Second intifada and an 11-day war between Israel and Hamas in 2021.

Clashes between Palestinian youth and the Israeli police, who sometimes raid the compound, are seen around the Arab world as provocations by the Jewish state.

“The prime minister has made a balanced decision that allows for religious freedom within the limits of the security needs as established by heads of the security establishment,” Netanyahu’s office said, without saying what the decision was.

There has been an informal, and constantly changing, set of restrictions into the Old City and the al-Aqsa compound since the Hamas cross border raid into Israel that triggered a war now in its fourth month.

Since then, Israeli police have often barred young Muslim men without addresses in the Old City from entering the walled city, and many younger Muslim men say they have been turned away from the mosque itself.

Any large-scale restrictions on Palestinians with Israeli nationality, who make up about a fifth of the population, would face legal challenges regarding their freedom to worship. The holy month of Ramadan begins in March.

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