(photo credit: AP [file])
The rival Palestinian governments in the West Bank and Gaza fought over the content of mosque sermons and collection of donations during the upcoming month of Ramadan, but agreed to start observance together Thursday, nominally preserving unity during the holiest period for Muslims.
Ramadan is a time of dawn-to-dusk fast, prayer in mosques and giving to the poor, and the starting date depends on the sighting of a new moon by a country's top cleric. Libya and Nigeria began the fast Wednesday, but other Muslim countries will only do so Thursday.
For the Palestinians, Ramadan is marred this year by the split between the West Bank and Gaza. In June, the Islamic Hamas seized control of Gaza by force, prompting PA Chairman Mahmoud Abbas to set up a rival government in the West Bank.
Abbas' information minister, Riad Malki, warned mosque preachers this week not to deliver inflammatory or political Ramadan sermons. Abbas' Fatah movement has accused Hamas of using mosques to incite against its political opponents.
Preachers violating the instructions will be fired or sent into early retirement, Malki said.
In the West Bank city of Nablus, Palestinian security forces seized three assault rifles in a local mosque. The intelligence chief in Nablus, Abu Jihad Kmeil, accused Hamas of using mosques for illegal activity. Hamas denied the claim, saying the weapons had been planted in the mosque by security officials.
In Gaza, senior cleric Saleh al-Reqeb said the directives from the West Bank are disrespectful to preachers and are meant to muzzle any criticism of Abbas' policies, including his attempt to revive peace talks with Israel.
Ismail Haniyeh of Hamas, the prime minister deposed by Abbas, told worshippers in a mosque near his house in the Shati refugee camp that his government will prevail.
"Yes our money is little, and the siege is suffocating, and the crossings are closed and the policy of drying up our resources ... is unabating," he said. "But we will share what we have to remain dignified. No one will be able to break us for a few dollars."
Haniyeh said he was able to pay NIS 50 million (US$12 million) in salaries for 16,000 employees who were no longer paid by Abbas because of their loyalty to Hamas.
The West Bank government also announced that it will ban fundraising during Ramadan without permission from the Religious Affairs Ministry. Jamal Bawatna, the religious affairs minister in the West Bank, said this would prevent Arab charity from going to Hamas. The flow of local money in Gaza would be difficult to control, he said.
Hamas, meanwhile, removed the last senior Abbas-allied official in the Religious Affairs Ministry in Gaza, Bawatna said, to ensure that it is in control of all local donations in mosques.
With Gaza cut off from the world, Hamas is hard-pressed to provide for Gazans, specially during Ramadan, known for its festive mood, large family meals and social get-togethers after sundown.
But in a show of who is in charge of Gaza, dozens of members of the Hamas security force ran a 3-mile (4.5-kilometer) race in downtown Gaza City on Tuesday. The race was meant as a reminder to the faithful to stay healthy.
"The strong believer is better and more loved by God than the weak one," Mahmoud Kehel, a Hamas security commander, said to his force, quoting a saying by Islam's Prophet Muhammad.
Hamas plans to release on bail about 80 detainees as a good-will gesture for Ramadan, including 25 Fatah supporters, said Abu Obeida al-Jarrah, a Hamas commander.
Jokes about the Gaza-West Bank split abounded.
"If we fast without orders from Ramallah (the West Bank government), we will lose our salaries," said a comedian on Hamas radio. A Hamas official giggled to a reporter: "The religion is the same. But we in Gaza will fast in the morning. They in Ramallah will fast in the evening."
Hamas spokesman Sami Abu Zuhri said Hamas security forces would not enforce the fast, but expected voluntary compliance. Palestinians have become increasingly devout in recent years of strife and hardship, and it is rare to see someone eating or drinking in public during the Ramadan fast, particularly in conservative Gaza.
Kamal, a uniformed Hamas security man standing on a Gaza City street, a rifle over his shoulder, said not fasting is no longer an option. "Not fasting is forbidden," he said, refusing to give his last name because he is a member of the security forces.
Kamal stopped short of saying whether he would punish violators, but added that "there is no more protection for those who are not fasting."