According Israeli civil administration policy, Jews and Muslims may use the Ibrahimi Mosque/Cave of Machpelah exclusively on their holiest days; on paper, the Israeli authorities allot each group an equal number of these days. But the realities on the ground show the severe inequality of this policy’s implementation.
August 4 was Laylat-al-Qadr, the holiest night of the year for Muslims—the night God revealed the Qur’an to Muhammad. Muslims believe prayers are most potent and that God forgives all sins that night. Laylat-al-Qadr used to be the busiest time of the year for the Ibrahimi Mosque. Thousands of Palestinians came to the tomb to pray throughout the night. In accordance with Israel’s policy, the whole mosque (divided when settler Baruch Goldstein massacred Muslim worshippers in February 1994) is open to Muslims only for twenty-four hours.
This year, the mosque was open for only part of the night, until 3:00 a.m. Although Muslims had full access inside the Mosque at night, they still did not have access to the park or road in front of the Mosque. The military took every measure to ensure that the Muslim holiday settler life would not disturb settler life.
The Israeli soldiers at the checkpoints surrounding at one point did not allow any men between the ages of 18 and 35 to enter the area; at another point, they permitted no men to enter at all. The restrictions seemed to change by the minute and even the soldiers at different posts were inconsistent about who was allowed into the area.
These changing restrictions intimidated Palestinians. That night, when the area is usually teaming with worshippers, fewer arrived than usual. In addition, on 23 July, Israeli military authorities announced that the Mosque would be closed to Muslims on the night of Laylat-al-Qadr in order for Jews to have exclusive access to it. The next day they decided that Muslims could have the building for the night before the soldiers turned it over to the settlers. The announcement and decision change also resulted in fewer numbers attending on 4 August. The Jewish holiday which originally trumped Laylat-al-Qadr was Rosh Chodesh Elul, which is not one of the holidays for which they are supposed to have full access to the Ibrahimi Mosque/Cave of Machpelah.
Starting at 7:00 a.m., Jews had full access to the Ibrahimi Mosque/Cave of Machpelah. During this time, the settlers hosted other Israelis as a parade with hundreds of people marched down Shuhada Street blaring music and waving Israeli flags. The parade resulted in a restriction of Palestinian freedom of movement. Instead of closing just the entrance to tomb, soldiers closed the checkpoint in front of the entrance. The area surrounding the tomb is the main passage from the Old City to the east or the south. When the military closes that entrance, non-settlers must walk over a mile to avoid the impasse. Due to the summer heat and Ramadan fast an extra mile makes any journey unbearable for Muslims in the city.
According to international law, the Israeli settlements should not be in this city. Under Israeli policy, Jews and Muslims should share the Ibrahimi Mosque/Cave of Machpelah equally, with both getting days for exclusive use. The Israeli military in reality allows the settlers far more exclusive days, far longer exclusive days, and far more disruptive exclusive days.