Palestinians’ prayers find a voice amid Israeli protest

Mohammed Daraghmeh and Karin Laub
Associated Press
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Jerusalem — Thousands of Palestinian Muslims have been praying in the streets of Jerusalem every evening — creating a new, surprisingly effective form of protest in their long conflict with Israel.

Since the crisis over the city’s most contested shrine erupted more than a week ago, they have set up neat rows of prayer rugs after sundown, kneeling and bowing on the hard asphalt in the set rituals of worship.

The evocative scenes reflect a newfound unity among Jerusalem’s Palestinians, who make up almost 40 percent of the city’s residents. The protesters say they have found their voice after years of being sidelined or ignored by Israel as well as Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas’ self-rule government in the West Bank.

The protests were triggered by Israel’s decision to install new security measures, including metal detectors and cameras, at a major shrine in Jerusalem’s Old City in response to a July 14 attack by Arab gunmen who killed two Israeli police guards.

The 37-acre compound — the third holiest site of Islam and the most sacred one of Judaism — has served as the emotional centerpiece of rival religious and national narratives of Muslims and Jews, Palestinians and Israel.

For many Muslims, the new security measures were just the latest proof of their suspicions that Israel gradually wants to expand its control over the Muslim-administered holy site, home to the Al Aqsa and Dome of the Rock mosques.

Israeli denials have not dispelled such views, nurtured by the daily frustrations of life under Israeli occupation; Israel captured traditionally Arab east Jerusalem in the 1967 war and annexed it to its capital, a move not recognized by most of the international community.

Palestinians in Jerusalem, who see themselves as the defenders of the holy site, felt Israel crossed a red line with its latest measures. Israel took down the metal detectors Tuesday, but kept in place several newly installed cameras overlooking the sacred compound.

“The pressure cooker has exploded,” said Khalil Abu Arafeh, a 67-year-old Palestinian retiree, explaining the intensity of the protests. The Israeli authorities “kept pressing until it exploded, and there is no turning back.”

Abu Arafeh spoke as he and his son Amjad, 37, sat on the ground near the Old City’s Lion’s Gate, the main area for the street prayers, on Tuesday evening.

Heavily armed Israeli riot police stood to the side and watched. As on other nights, brief clashes erupted as worshippers dispersed after the second evening prayer. Some Palestinians threw stones, and police fired stun grenades, tear gas and rubber bullets.

But for most of the evening, the gathering had the vibe of a community get-together. Some brought large quantities of food or water from home, distributing it among the worshippers. Others sang Islamic songs or delivered speeches during prayer breaks.

Some said they were drawn by the experience of shared purpose, rare in east Jerusalem’s fractured society, where Israel has clamped down on Palestinian efforts to organize politically. The prayer protests drew men and women, young and old, lawyers and laborers.

Mohammed Abu Ziad, a 34-year-old engineer, said he has participated every evening, believing it’s up to ordinary Palestinians to take a stand.

“We cannot rely on anyone,” he said, bemoaning what he said is the ineffectiveness of Abbas and his Palestinian Authority government in the West Bank. At one point, Palestinians hoped east Jerusalem could be the capital of a future state, but Abbas’ efforts to negotiate the terms of independence with Israel ran aground a decade ago.

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