This was the first Friday in Ramadan that I happened to see the Qalandiya checkpoint in the early morning hours and I was shocked at the scene in front of me. On my way to the Allenby Bridge for a short trip abroad, I was already on the West Bank side of the crossing but needed to go around it towards the Jericho road. As soon as the taxi approached the Qalandiya refugee camp about half a kilometer away from the actual checkpoint, the traffic began to pile up. Literally dozens of buses were lined up on the side of the roads filled with determined and faithful Muslims who most likely showed up at the crack of dawn for a chance to reach the coveted Al Aqsa Mosque for Friday Ramadan prayers. At the actual checkpoint –” which Israeli soldiers close off completely to traffic on Fridays in the holy month –” there were even more people. Throngs of men, women and children stood under the hot sun, parcels in hand and waited for Israeli soldiers barring the way to let them through.
The checkpoint scene is unfortunately all too familiar to me – Palestinians crammed up against the iron bars in the hopes of crossing quickly; or machine gun-toting Israeli soldiers wielding their authority over men and women old enough to be their mothers and fathers barking out orders or nonchalantly waving a person across, or worse, turning them back. But what I was not familiar with were the tens of hundreds of people who were willing to brave the heat, thirst and hunger (since they are fasting) just for a chance to pray at Al Aqsa.
This sheer dedication was what touched me the most. There are not that many things in this world worth spending 12 hours in the open air and sun just to cross Qalandiya. At least I can’t think of many. But these people, who according to Waqf officials, numbered over 100,000 that Friday in Ramadan, the discomfort, humiliations from soldiers and parched throats were all worth it if it meant they could pray and worship in one of God’s most holy of abodes.
Jerusalem, I have come to realize, is not just a negotiating chip. It is an emotional reality for millions of Muslims and Christians around the world. One of the reasons its status as future Palestinian capital is non-negotiable is because of the unbreakable bond the Palestinians share with this beautiful city.
This utter love for Jerusalem even extends beyond Palestine’s borders. Just this week I was in the United Arab Emirates. For Palestinians, the country, its landscape, lifestyle and people are very different even though we share the same language and religion. That is, until you say you are from Jerusalem. Barriers melt away and faces soften as they look at you in disbelief, as though Jerusalem were a distant neverland with no actual people living in it. "You live in Jerusalem?" one woman asked me in disbelief. After nodding in the affirmative she looked dreamily beyond me with a sigh. "Ah, you are so lucky. To be able to see and to pray at Al Aqsa. I envy you."
Years ago I met a Moroccan journalist on a trip to Germany. He knew I was Palestinian and gave me the customary sympathy along the lines of "God help you Palestinians. May you be victorious in the end." But when I told him I lived just a few hundred meters away from Al Aqsa Mosque compound, this tall distinguished and very proper gentleman practically wept. "This is all Arab Muslims’ dream, to be able to pray at Al Aqsa," he told me with such passion it was almost intimidating. "Please, may I ask you just one favor?" he said hopefully.
After my initial surprise at the unorthodox question from someone I had just met a few hours earlier, I also detected his good nature and sincerity so decided to grant him this favor if it were in my power.
"Please, perform a prayer for me inside the Aqsa. I would mean the world to me," he said. Of course, without hesitation, I agreed.
This pure and utter love for this holy city will perhaps be the deciding factor in any final agreement with Israel. The people, not only the Palestinians but Arabs, Muslims and Christians the world over, would not allow for their beloved city to be signed off. In the streets of Abu Dhabi, Amman, Ramallah and for sure Cairo, there are places named after Jerusalem like Al Quds Bakery or Al Quds Jewelers as a reminder that even it the city is out of sight, it will never be out of mind.