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Palestinians fear Israeli restrictions on Al Aqsa mosque ahead of Ramadan

SCOTT DETROW, HOST:

To Jerusalem now, where Palestinians of the Al-Aqsa Mosque are getting ready for Ramadan due early next week. Many are concerned about facing Israeli restrictions as the war in Gaza continues. NPR's Fatma Tanis went to last Friday's prayers before the start of the Muslim holy month and has this postcard.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

UNIDENTIFIED SINGER: (Singing in non-English language).

FATMA TANIS, BYLINE: It's a busy day in Jerusalem. Outside the walls of the Old City, 40,000 people are running the Jerusalem Marathon. DJs are on the sidewalk blasting music. People have come to watch and cheer the runners on.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: (Vocalizing).

TANIS: I make my way toward the old city for a different kind of event - Friday prayers at Al-Aqsa compound. It's one of the holiest sites in Islam and Judaism.

UNIDENTIFIED PEOPLE: (Non-English language spoken).

TANIS: At Damascus Gate, which leads to the Muslim quarter of the Old City, there's a heavy police presence and a line to enter. A Palestinian man asks out loud, is there an inspection? Another answers him, there's always an inspection these days.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #2: (Non-English language spoken).

TANIS: Inside, shops selling piles of freshly plucked strawberries, olives and syrupy Palestinian sweets line the bazaar. There are more checkpoints to go through. Several Palestinians, mostly young men, are turned away. Since the October 7 attack by Hamas, Israel has been restricting access to the mosque. Young men under the age of 40 and Palestinians living in the West Bank are not allowed to come here. They pray on the street outside the Old City walls.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #3: (Singing in non-English language).

TANIS: The Dome of the Rock, with its iconic golden dome, glints under the sunlight. I immediately notice things are different. There are groups of Israeli police standing close to worshippers. I've reported from Al-Aqsa before. Fridays tend to have a festive atmosphere. Tens of thousands of Palestinians come here wearing their best clothes and linger after prayers. Today, though, it's muted. People are tense and afraid to speak. Eighteen-year-old Rushdiyyah agrees to talk on the condition that I don't use her full name. She lives in East Jerusalem and is afraid of getting in trouble with the police.

RUSHDIYYAH: (Non-English language spoken).

TANIS: Look around, she says. There are only women, children and middle-aged men. It shouldn't be this empty, especially on the Friday before Ramadan. Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's office said that access to Al-Aqsa during the first week of Ramadan will be like previous years, when nearly everyone could enter, overruling the far-right minister of national security, Itamar Ben-Gvir, who wanted a near-blanket ban, including on Palestinian citizens of Israel. Still, Rushdiyyah is worried and says the first few days will set the tone.

UNIDENTIFIED IMAM: (Non-English language spoken).

TANIS: In his sermon, the imam tells the congregation to hold the sanctity of Al-Aqsa close during the holy month. He urges them to keep in touch with family and friends in Gaza, too. It's a reminder of what this place means to Palestinians and the Muslim world. Tensions here have the power to trigger wars.

MARWA: (Non-English language spoken).

TANIS: Forty-five-year-old Marwa, who also didn't want to use her full name, said this Ramadan is going to be different than all other years.

MARWA: (Non-English language spoken).

TANIS: There is the war in Gaza, and we Palestinians are under so much pressure every day, she says. But there's always hope that the holy month will bring peace. Fatma Tanis, NPR News, Jerusalem.

(SOUNDBITE OF THE BARR BROTHERS' "STATIC ORPHANS")' Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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Fatma Tanis