Hundreds of thousands of Muslims pile out of a multitude of buses, crowd through three ancient gates in the walls of the Old City of Jerusalem and squeeze along a few selected lanes leading to the Al Aqsa mosque.
It is a Friday morning during the holy month of Ramadan and for hours the astonishing flow of humanity surges through three or four narrow streets, directed by groups of Israeli soldiers standing watchful on every corner. There is a loud clamour of voices, insistent music blares from the market stalls, people are pushing and jostling and batting away the merchandise which dangles in their faces as they hurry to their prayers.
They have come from every corner of Israeli-occupied West Bank, around 300,000 of them. Many have been on the road since 4am to give them enough time to negotiate the maze of barriers and checkpoints which strangles the internal transport system for Palestinians.
The Al Aqsa mosque is built on Al-Haram Ash-Sharif, also known as the Temple Mount, near the spot from which it is believed the prophet Mohamed rose to heaven, and it is a religious requirement for every Muslim to pray there at least once during Ramadan. I join the eager throng for a while and soon I begin to notice something.
There are children here but no teenagers and no young men or women. This is because the Israeli government prohibits the 2.3 million Palestinians who live in the West Bank and Gaza Strip from entering Jerusalem (only Palestinians living in East Jerusalem have the necessary permits).
This restriction is lifted on the four Fridays during Ramadan, but only for men over 50 and women over 45. So where some 750,000 people used to come to pray in one of the world’s greatest religious gatherings, that number has now been reduced by more than half.
As I reach a corner near the mosque compound, a soldier spots me as an obviously non-Muslim foreigner and forbids me to go further. So while the flow turns left, I go forward into a suddenly quiet alley and pass through a metal detector to enter the Western Wall Plaza.
In front of me is the Wailing Wall which forms the western side of the Temple Mount and is sacred to Judaism. From here you can see absolutely nothing of the huge mass of Muslims at their prayers. You can only hear the muffled tones of a priest, an incomprehensible background hum in the distance.
It is an astonishing vanishing act – imagine the faithful gathered in St Peter’s Square in Rome at Easter becoming suddenly invisible to all but the faithful, as if the occasion were some kind of perverse secret.
In the peaceful and spacious Western Plaza, Israeli families and knots of tourists stroll in a leisurely fashion towards the Wall to make their devotions. Many have arrived in coaches at the wide and modern Dung Gate which leads directly into the Plaza and I suspect most of the tourists have not the slightest clue that 300,000 Muslims are fervently at prayer just a few yards away.
It was this route that the Muslims used to take to the Al-Aqsa mosque. From Dung Gate they would walk across the Plaza – whose serene expanse was created by the destruction of 2000 Palestinian homes and businesses – then they would climb up a wooden ramp to a doorway in the Wailing Wall which leads directly into the mosque compound.
But this was the route which then Israeli opposition leader Ariel Sharon decided to walk to the mosque compound in September, 2000, accompanied by a phalanx of armed guards in a provocative act which sparked the 2nd intifada. Then the Israeli government closed the route to Muslims for “security” reasons.
After prayers are over at midday, the 300,000 children and middle-aged pilgrims are not allowed to take a stroll through the streets of the capital wherever the fancy leads them. Instead they are funnelled hastily back through the Muslim quarter, hustled on to their buses and whisked away to their designated lands.
As I watch them pouring through Damascus Gate, I begin to understand how it is that many Israelis, never mind people round the world, manage to blind themselves to the grim realities of daily life for the Palestinians. Given Kafkaesque arrangements like these – it’s really quite easy.