Palestinian journo recalls forbidden journey to Al-Aqsa

Anadolu Agency reporter from West Bank crosses fence to perform Friday prayer at holy site.

Palestinian journo recalls forbidden journey to Al-Aqsa

I don't remember feeling worried when I decided to take up the challenge and slip in from West Bank to Jerusalem to perform the Friday prayer in Al-Aqsa Mosque. I knew I would end up jailed in an Israeli prison, but it was worth taking the risk.

At dawn, I started my journey toward the mosque which served as the first direction for Muslim prayers and is the third holiest site for them. I ventured on my journey despite the fact that I don't hold an Israeli permit to enter Jerusalem, which is an almost impossible feat.

To make things more difficult, the Israeli authorities made the coronavirus vaccine compulsory for entry to the mosque -- a condition that has its limitations as the vaccine currently is only available for the elderly and health workers.

I slipped in through a hole in the Israeli fence across the West Bank. The holes were made by Palestinians to reach their workplaces.

It is believed that the Israeli army turns a blind eye to these holes as Israeli workplaces are in need of Palestinian labor.

Two of my friends and I slipped through a hole in the wall in Qalqilya city, north of West Bank. Many other Palestinian workers accompanied us. The vehicles waiting at the other end took us to the holy city.

At 7 a.m., the minibus dropped us near the Damascus gate, Jerusalem's flashpoint which has witnessed clashes since last Saturday between Palestinians and Israeli forces.

"They [the Israeli police] have blocked the roads. Don't walk in groups of more than three so that they don't notice you," the driver told us.

Before I got out of the minibus, I noticed the Golden Dome of Al-Aqsa. It seemed as it was welcoming us.

The Damascus gate looked like a battle zone.

The city was still asleep but the Israeli soldiers were deployed everywhere. "We pray to God that they do not notice we are not from Jerusalem," one of my friends said.

At this particular gate, one has to pass many Israeli soldiers with security cameras watching you.

Two Israeli soldiers removed the iron barricades and approached us while speaking in Hebrew. We thought they are coming to arrest us, but they were moving to another Israeli checkpoint.

We headed toward the markets in Jerusalem's Old City,

Our heartbeat quickened every time we passed a checkpoint. A minute felt like a lifetime.

Ahead of us, there was a young man holding a bag. Israeli soldiers hurried to search the bag.

I passed them and thought they will stop me because I too was hiding a prayer mat inside a bag.

Upon entering the Al-Aqsa Mosque, we heaved a sigh of relief. Some people knelt down thanking God, while others clicked selfies with the Golden Dome behind them.

Only a few dozen worshipers were at the mosque. People from Jerusalem and Palestinian Arabs perform the dawn prayers and wait inside until the Friday prayer.

This was our moment to tour the mosque. That Friday, estimates suggest 60,000 Palestinians congregated at Al-Aqsa.

Yet the number is very low in comparison to previous years when nearly all Palestinians from the West Bank were denied entry to the mosque, in addition to a complete ban on Palestinians from Gaza to travel to Jerusalem.

We toured Wadi al-Jouz, Sheikh Jarrah and the Olive Mount with its view on Al-Aqsa Mosque.

Breaking the fast in the mosque while hearing the call for prayer was a spiritual experience.

Many Palestinian Jerusalemites hold group iftar meals at the mosque to keep the tradition alive.

The night view of Al-Aqsa Mosque is a walk to remember.

That Friday, 75,000 Palestinians performed Tarawih, the special Ramadan night prayers, at the mosque.

But as all beginnings have an end, my brief visit to Jerusalem also ended. I left with the hope of returning soon.