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The night of Jerusalem's joyous chaos

By Graham Cooke - posted Monday, 3 September 2012

From the balcony of the house where I am staying in Israel I look out over the Kidron Valley past the white, slit-windowed buildings on its far slopes to the grey wall that slices the city of Jerusalem into two.

The wall, separating predominantly Jewish West Jerusalem from the predominately Moslem eastern sector of the city, has been likened to the one that divided east and west Berlin; its purpose has been described as similar to that of apartheid South Africa. Neither comparison is strictly true. Jerusalem's wall was built to keep people out rather than to fence them in, as the Berlin wall was supposed to do, and unlike the days of white dominated South Africa there are no strict divisions along racial lines. Jews and Arabs mingle freely, if on occasions uncomfortably, on both sides of the dividing barrier. There are no separate toilets, or swimming pools or enclosures at sporting events and so on.

But except for a fortunate few, the wall and the associated checkpoints on roads between Israel and the occupied West Bank have been a barrier to Palestinians who want to travel beyond their little land-locked territory. Passes are required and seldom given; family reunions, sickness and travel beyond Israel are rarely considered sufficient reasons for the rules to be relaxed.


Until, for one night during the recent holy month of Ramadan, the barriers were eased.

The occasion was the festival of Laylat al-Qadr, the holiest night of Ramadan when Muslims believe the first parts of the Koran were revealed to Muhammad in 610. In Jerusalem celebrations centre on the Al Aqsa Mosque in the Old City where readings from the Koran are conducted through the night.

In the past Israeli authorities have placed strict quotas on the number of West Bankers allowed in to Jerusalem to join the festival but this year, in an unprecedented move, all Palestinian women and males under 12 and over 40 were allowed to enter with only minimal supervision.

Israeli authorities estimated that more than one million Palestinians passed through the various roadblocks and checkpoints. The result was total joyous chaos as the narrow alleyways of the Old City were choked to bursting point with pilgrims trying to reach the sacred site. For many others however, it was an opportunity to visit West Jerusalem, the cities of Jaffa and Haifa and other areas where their families once lived before the turmoil surrounding the founding of the State of Israel in 1948. Still others headed for the fashionable shopping centres of Salah ad-Din, Malha and Mamilla where traders, with an eye to profit, stayed open late to accommodate the visitors.

Some even travelled to the overwhelmingly Jewish city of Tel Aviv to swim and paddle in a Mediterranean Sea many had never seen

Chair of the Palestinian Academic Society for the Study of International Affairs, Mahdi Abdul Hadi, said it was the first time since the 1967 Six Day War that such free access to the Al Aqsa Mosque had been granted.


"This allows Jerusalem, a city which has been slipping from the consciousness of Palestinians, to become once again their city," Dr Abdul Hadi said.

"It says a lot about contemporary Israeli thinking when it comes to security and the future relationship Israelis expect with Palestinians."

The night was not entirely incident free, but the widespread civil disturbances predicted by some conservative Jews did not take place and Dr Abdul Hadi said that if this was really an attempt by the Israelis to "test the water" for a softening of the borders between Israel and the West Bank, then it was a success.

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About the Author

Graham Cooke has been a journalist for more than four decades, having lived in England, Northern Ireland, New Zealand and Australia, for a lengthy period covering the diplomatic round for The Canberra Times.

He has travelled to and reported on events in more than 20 countries, including an extended stay in the Middle East. Based in Canberra, where he obtains casual employment as a speech writer in the Australian Public Service, he continues to find occasional assignments overseas, supporting the coverage of international news organisations.

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