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World Press Review is a program of the Stanley Foundation.
February 2002 issue of World Press Review
(VOL. 49, No. 2)
A Ruthless Ramadan
Joharah Baker, Palestine
Report (Internet publication), Jerusalem, Israel, Nov. 28,
The first day of Ramadan fell this year on a
Friday, the Muslim holy day. As my family and I sat down for
our first evening meal to break our fast, none of us could fully
appreciate the beauty of this special month that is meant to
spread compassion, faith, and family togetherness. Rather, we
sat quietly around the table nibbling at our food, looking hauntingly
at the empty chair where my brother-in-law should have been.
Instead of being with his family, Yasser was in some cold, damp
cell in the Russian Compound detention center in West Jerusalem.
May God ease his way, his mother whispered quietly
over her bowl of soup.
This Ramadan brings little cheer for the Palestinians of the
West Bank and Gaza. After more than a year of confrontations,
the Palestinians are feeling the strain of their many losses
more in this month of fasting than ever before. Financially,
the situation is close to collapse: According to the Palestinian
Economic Council for Development and Reconstruction, overall
losses incurred by the Palestinian economy in the one-year period
between September 2000 and September 2001 totaled US$5.3 billion.
In addition, Palestinian ministries dish out an approximate
$80 million a year to families in crisis. This includes the
monthly assistance to families of martyrs, detainees, and those
injured in the Intifada.
This devastating cost is clearly reflected in the lives of everyday
Palestinians. While Ramadan in previous years meant lavish tablesthis
year most Palestinian tables have a lot more empty space. We
dont make meat dishes every single day this year,
says Um Ahmad, a mother of five from Ramallah. And true, Ahmads
situation is enviable compared to those whose families will
never again be complete. According to the Palestinian Red Crescent
Society, 823 Palestinians have been killed by Israeli gunfire
since Sept. 29, 2000.
This year, the most pressing demand is getting to the dinner
table on time before the voice of the muezzin calls out Allahu
Akbar from the minaret, signaling the end of a long
day of fasting. We broke our fast at the checkpoint yesterday,
says May, a schoolteacher with three children who works in Ramallah
but lives in a village on the other side of the Qalandiya checkpoint
that splits Ramallah and Jerusalem. The 90-something additional
checkpoints that Israel has erected over this past year of Intifada
in the West Bank and Gaza are a constant irritant to almost
every Palestinian in the occupied territories. For those who
try to brave the checkpoint crossing in a vehicle, the wait
is almost always long and grueling. We ended up breaking
our fast with a date, says Suleiman, a Birzeit University
student, of his trip back home. When the muezzin called
Allahu Akbar, we were still in Qalandiya.
As Muslims purge themselves of their sins through prayer and
fasting, one venue sorely sought but hardly attainable is Al-Aqsa
Mosque, in the heart of Jerusalems Old City. Third in
importance only after the mosques of Mecca and Medina as the
holiest place in Islam, Al-Aqsa has been the site of Palestinian
Muslims most devout worship and bloodiest conflicts. It
is said that one prayer in Al-Aqsa is worth 500 prayers and
that during the Night of Destiny, or Laylat al-Qadar,
the sky opens up above the holy grounds and worshippers may
wish for their hearts desire.
While it seems as if the roads to Al-Aqsa are swelling with
people, their numbers are nothing compared to what they would
be if Israeli restrictions on movement did not exist.
Getting to Jerusalem has become only a dream for me,
says a 29-year-old resident of Al-Ram, who preferred not to
give his name. Now that it is Ramadan it is really sad
and frustrating that I cannot reach Al-Aqsa.
No more than 20,000 to 30,000 worshippers were able to reach
the mosque compound on the first Friday of Ramadan, Al-Aqsa
director Sheikh Mohammed Hussein told the Voice of Palestine.
In normal daysi.e., without Israeli checkpointsthe
numbers easily rose into the hundreds of thousands. One Old
City resident recalls his childhood years when worshippers flooded
into Al-Aqsa in the millions. People were praying inside
the mosque, on the grounds, outside the gates, and all along
the streets leading to Al-Aqsa, he says with nostalgia.
But those who can make it to Jerusalem come in busloads. Every
Thursday afternoon and Friday morning, streams of excited visitors
unload with backpacks, bags, and straw mats and make their way
hurriedly into the grounds to secure a tiny corner of the courtyard.
Most of these visitors do not come from other areas of the West
Bank and certainly not from Gaza, which is locked away from
the rest of the country by strict Israeli military orders and
an oppressive airtight border crossing. These visitors are those
traveling across the imaginary but all too ubiquitous Green
Line separating Israel from the occupied territories. These
Palestinian Muslims bear Israeli passports and are therefore
allowed to move freely into Jerusalem. While their Palestinian
brethren in the West Bank and Gaza are barred, it is this group
of Muslims that is saving the economy of the Old City.
If it werent for the Israeli-Arabs,
we would not be able to keep our heads above water, says
Tayseer, who owns a small shop just meters from Al-Aqsas
main gate. He and his brother have spread their wares on an
ice-cream refrigerator, the contents of which have been replaced
with frozen foods. Different types of cheeses, breads, and cakes
are displayed for passersby, and many of those visiting from
inside the Green Line are enticed by the relatively cheaper
prices of Jerusalem merchandise. We are doing all right,
he concludes. Not like the people in the West Bank and
Gaza. They have really been hit hard, Tayseer says sympathetically.
Despite the difficult economic situation and the heavy human
losses Palestinians are now enduring, Muslims this year have
not lost the spirit of Ramadan. As families sit down to break
their fast with the setting of the sun, Palestinians are learning
to appreciate what they haverather than pine over what