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Observing Ramadan in Jerusalem

The Muslim holy month enters its second week today, with many Israeli restrictions still in place.

By Ben Lynfield Special to The Christian Science Monitor / December 4, 2000



JERUSALEM

For the Muslim fasting month of Ramadan, which enters its second week today, Israeli authorities have erected a colorful sign at the Old City's Damascus Gate, wishing the faithful to "be well every year."

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But this year, wellness seems far from what Palestinians are experiencing, as fatalities continue to mount from the uprising in the West Bank and Gaza Strip and economic misery grows. Israeli security strictures are also preventing all but Jerusalem Muslims from reaching Al-Aqsa mosque, the third-holiest site in Islam.

"I feel anger, sadness, and pain," said East Jerusalem housewife Faya Ghoshe, after mosque prayers Friday. "I don't see an end to all the deaths and injuries."

"This Ramadan is different than before, worse than before," adds Mohammed al-Faqi, a teacher. He has been unable to see his relatives in the West Bank because of military restrictions on travel there that were set up after the uprising broke out Sept. 28.

Thousands of Israeli security forces were positioned around the mosque and in the streets of the Old City on Friday, including on a rooftop just above where Ms. Ghoshe spoke. "What do the Jews want with our mosque?" she yells in a mixture of anger and despair.

In a sense, that question has become the rallying cry for the uprising, which began amid protests against a visit to the mosque compound by right-wing Israeli leader Ariel Sharon. The compound is sacred to Jews as the site of two ancient temples. Many Palestinians interpreted Mr. Sharon's visit as a threat to remove the mosque in favor of a third temple.

The Al-Aqsa intifadah - or uprising, as the Palestinian Authority calls it - has raged since, and has left nearly 300 dead, most of them Palestinians, including five fatalities over the weekend.

Ramadan, the month when, according to tradition, the Koran was revealed, is ordinarily a spiritually demanding yet joyous month. Its daily highlight is the iftar, or the fastbreaking meal after sundown usually shared with relatives, and sometimes with the poor. This year, conversations at the iftar are "about people who died, missile attacks, and whether there has been shooting" says Naif Shinar.

For Mr. Shinar, a blacksmith, and for more than 100,000 Palestinian breadwinners who used to work in Israel, this Ramadan will be remembered as a time of financial woes. The Israeli company where he worked for seven years dismissed him after the start of the uprising. Most of the other workers cannot reach their jobs because of military closures, which officials describe as a security measure, but which Palestinians view as a collective punishment.

Israel rejects being cast in the role of Ramadan spoiler, saying it has imposed all of the strictures in response to Palestinian violence and that they will be relaxed when there is a sustained drop-off in violence.

"The people who started the violence are Palestinian, not Israeli, and those who continue it are Palestinians, not Israeli. The people putting bombs in Israel are Palestinians," says Shlomo Dror, a spokesman for the coordinator of Israeli activities in the West Bank and Gaza Strip. "We have to take some measures to avoid this violence."

Mr. Dror says that as gestures for Ramadan, Israel has reopened the airport in Gaza after a one-month closure, and reopened Gaza's Rafah Crossing with Egypt and the West Bank's Allenby Bridge Crossing with Jordan.

The Israeli restrictions on reaching Al-Aqsa were loosened Friday for Jerusalem Palestinians, with people below age 45 permitted to pray there for the first time in two months. But residents of the West Bank and Gaza Strip continue to be barred.

The central idea of Ramadan is "takarub ila Allah," getting closer to God. In practice, this is to be achieved by prayer, fasting, refraining from conjugal relations during the day, reading from the Koran, acts of charity, and moral behavior such as refraining from malicious gossip.

For Hamas Islamic Resistance Movement leader Khaled Mashaal, Ramadan is a time for heightened confrontation against Israel. "Great people of Palestine, burn the ground under the feet of the Zionist invaders. Ramadan is a great month to escalate. The Zionists have no future on our land. They will perish, God willing," Reuters quoted him as saying Friday in Beirut, Lebanon.

By contrast, Adnan [last name withheld], who works in a restaurant in Jewish West Jerusalem, believes the intifadah has gone on long enough.

"On the positive side, the Israelis know that we won't give up on Al-Aqsa and Jerusalem. But on the negative side people are martyred, wounded, arrested every day. Children are being killed, and the economy is being destroyed. The negatives outweigh the positives," he says.

Adnan is spending this Ramadan alone. He did not want to run a daily gauntlet of Army checkpoints and militant Jewish settlers to get from his West Bank village to Jerusalem, so he rented a room in the city, where he now lives, away from his family, in fear of being discovered by the authorities and imprisoned.

"I have no iftar this year. I think about my wife and son all the time. There is no Ramadan."

(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society