Israel May Put New Restrictions on Visiting Aqsa Mosque as Ramadan Nears

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The Israeli government was locked in debate on Monday on whether to increase restrictions on Muslims’ access to an important mosque compound in Jerusalem during the holy month of Ramadan, leading to predictions of unrest if the limits are enforced.

The office of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said in a statement that a decision had already been reached, without disclosing what it was. But two officials briefed on the deliberations, who spoke on the condition of anonymity in order to discuss a sensitive matter, said a final decision would be made only after the government received recommendations from the security services in the coming days.

On Sunday, Israeli cabinet ministers debated whether to bar some members of Israel’s Arab minority from attending prayers at the Aqsa Mosque compound, a site which is sacred to Muslims and Jews alike, during Ramadan, according to the two officials.

Israel has long limited access to Al Aqsa for Palestinians from the Israeli-occupied West Bank, and since the start of the war in Gaza, it has imposed extra restrictions on Arab citizens and residents of Israel. Some had hoped those limits would be largely lifted for Ramadan, which is expected to begin around March 10 — but the talk now is of increasing them, instead.

Dan Harel, a former deputy chief of staff in the Israeli military, said in a radio interview that such a move would be “unnecessary, foolish and senseless” and might “ignite the entire Muslim world.” One Arab Israeli lawmaker, Waleed Alhwashla, said on social media that it would be “liable to pour unnecessary oil on the fire of violence.”

In Muslim tradition, it is from the site of Al Aqsa compound that the Prophet Muhammad ascended to heaven, and tens of thousands of Muslims visit the mosque every day during Ramadan. For Jews, it is revered as the Temple Mount because it was the site of two Jewish temples in antiquity that remain central to Jewish identity.

It has also been a flashpoint for unrest.

Israeli police raids at the site, riots there by young Palestinians and visits by far-right Jewish activists have often been a catalyst for wider violence, including a brief war between Israel and Hamas in 2021.

The debate over new restrictions at the mosque compound on worshipers below a certain age came as the repercussions of the war in Gaza continued to be felt throughout the region on Monday.

On the Red Sea off the coast of Yemen, the crew of a cargo ship was forced to abandon ship after it came under attack from Houthi militia members, who have been firing missiles at ships there and in the Gulf of Aden in what they say is solidarity with Palestinians in Gaza. The attack on the British-owned ship, the Rubymar, appeared to be one of the Houthis’ most damaging so far.

Most of the group’s missile and drone assaults on ships have failed to inflict serious damage, but the strike on Monday night, involving two anti-ship ballistic missiles fired from Yemen, according to the U.S. military, was enough to drive the crew off the vessel. A warship that is part of a U.S.-led coalition responded to a distress call, and the crew was taken to a nearby port by another merchant vessel, Central Command said in a statement.

In retaliatory strikes, the U.S.-led coalition has repeatedly hit missiles and launchers in Yemen and intercepted drones and missiles, but so far it has failed to halt the attacks. The United States struck five Houthi targets, including an underwater drone, over the weekend. And on Monday, the European Union announced that it would be launching its own operation to accompany vessels and protect them from attack.

In the southern Gaza Strip, where Israeli troops were poised to extend their invasion, patients were being evacuated from a hospital that Israel claims has been used to conceal Hamas military operations. Hamas has denied those accusations.

On Monday, the hospital, the Nasser Medical Center, was little more than a shelter for a small, terrified crew of staff members and remaining patients. Dozens were evacuated from the hospital on Sunday and Monday, and the United Nations said negotiations were continuing for the Israeli military to allow more to leave.

The exodus was prompted by a raid last week by Israeli troops who entered the hospital and detained what Israel said was hundreds of people. Thousands of displaced Palestinians evacuated before and during the raid, leaving 15 health care workers and more than 150 patients hanging on inside with little food, few medical supplies and no tap water or electricity, the World Health Organization said Monday.

The war began on Oct. 7 after Hamas-led militants attacked Israel, killing, the Israelis say, around 1,200 people. In the Israel land and air assault on Hamas forces in Gaza that followed, more than 29,000 residents of the enclave have been killed, Gazan health officials say.

The move to impose more restrictions on the mosque in Jerusalem was promoted in the Israeli cabinet by Itamar Ben-Gvir, the far-right minister for national security, who has long pushed for greater Jewish control over the site and less Muslim access to it. In recent days, he has warned that Muslim worshipers might use the mosque to display support for Hamas.

Analysts say Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu is wary of angering Mr. Ben-Gvir because his ruling coalition depends on his support. But Arab leaders as well as some Jewish Israelis have warned that by allowing Mr. Ben-Gvir to dictate policy at the mosque, Mr. Netanyahu could inflame an already volatile situation.

Ramadan has been a critical moment for tensions between Israelis and Palestinians over the years, and on Sunday a member of Israel’s war cabinet, Benny Gantz, set the holy month as a deadline for the release of Israel hostages in Gaza, warning that fighting would proceed into Rafah, along the border with Egypt, if the captives were not freed.

The looming battles in Rafah have heightened fears of further humanitarian catastrophe among the hundreds of thousands of Palestinian refugees packed tightly in the area.

Thomas Fuller, Gabby Sobelman and Myra Noveck contributed reporting.



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