Celebrating Ramadan amid the coronavirus pandemic

JERUSALEM AFFAIRS: Between checkpoints and coronavirus restrictions, Muslim residents of Jerusalem-area neighborhoods are bracing for a socially-distanced Ramadan.

IBTISAM AHMED and her family: We are under two lockdowns: one by the Palestinian Authority and another by the Israeli police.  (photo credit: KHALED ABU-TOAMEH)
IBTISAM AHMED and her family: We are under two lockdowns: one by the Palestinian Authority and another by the Israeli police.
(photo credit: KHALED ABU-TOAMEH)
Ibtisam Ahmed, her mother and her four children sat this week in their living room, gazing at the single lantern (fanous) they had bought to decorate their home during Ramadan, which begins on Friday. For Muslims, the fanous is a symbol of hope to light the way from the darkness.
But the 35-year-old Ibtisam and her family know that this year’s Ramadan will be different from all previous fasting months. They don’t see the light at the end of the tunnel.
Since mid-March, the family has been under lockdown in their east Jerusalem neighborhood of Al-Shayyah, which is located beyond the security barrier, as part of precautionary measures to curb the spread of the coronavirus pandemic.
Since the construction of the security barrier, Al-Shayyah and its 15,000 residents, who hold Israeli-issued ID cards in their capacity as permanent residents of Jerusalem, have effectively become part of the Palestinian town of Eizariya, near Ma’aleh Adumim.
Eizariya, also referred to by its classical name of Bethany, is mostly located in areas C and B of the West Bank, meaning that civil affairs are under the control of the Palestinian Authority, and security matters under the control of the IDF.
In recent years, however, Israel has allowed Palestinian police forces to operate in the town and the nearby village of Abu Dis, which is also located in the West Bank.
Since the outbreak of the coronavirus, Palestinian policemen and Fatah volunteers have been manning a checkpoint at the entrance to Eizariya, as part of the state of emergency announced by PA President Mahmoud Abbas to stem the spread of the disease.
The Palestinians call the checkpoints the “love barriers.” The name was chosen in order to distinguish the Palestinian checkpoints from the ones the IDF has in different parts of the West Bank. The message the PA is seeking to send to its people: “Our checkpoints are here because we love you and want you to stay safe.”
“We rarely leave our homes these days,” Ibtisam said. “Although we hold Israeli ID cards, we have to pass through the Palestinian checkpoint if we want to go to Jerusalem. Then we have to pass through a number of Israeli checkpoints in and around Jerusalem.
“We understand that these checkpoints were set up to prevent the spread of the disease, but it’s not easy when you have to wait in line for more than an hour. We are under two lockdowns: one by the Palestinian Authority and another by the Israeli police.”
The checkpoints, she said, are not bothering people in her neighborhood and Eizariya as much as the restrictions imposed by the PA government and most Arab and Islamic countries during Ramadan, including the closure of mosques and suspension of the Taraweeh prayers. The Taraweeh prayers involve reading long chapters of the Koran every night, with the aim of completing the entire Koran by the end of Ramadan.
“I can’t imagine that this year we won’t be able to go to the mosque during Ramadan,” Ibtisam remarked. “During Ramadan, Muslims are used to going to the mosque each night for the Taraweeh prayers. Also, we are used to sitting together for the iftar (the evening meal with which Muslims end their daily Ramadan fast at sunset). It looks like it’s going to be a sad Ramadan this year because of the coronavirus, which will deprive us of celebrating this holy month as we are used to.”
Ibtisam’s 75-year-old mother, Umm Ibrahim, said she, too, feels sad because of the lockdown and other restrictions imposed on Muslims during Ramadan.
“This will be the first time that I won’t be able to invite my four sons and five daughters, together with all their children, to the iftar,” she lamented. “What makes Ramadan unique are the family gatherings every evening for the iftar. This is going to be difficult for me, but I understand that this is a special situation. It’s also sad to see our mosques closed.”
Sheikh Muhammad Hussein, the Palestinian mufti of Jerusalem, announced last week that all mosques will remain closed during Ramadan. He also issued a directive prohibiting worshipers from entering al-Aqsa Mosque in Jerusalem for prayers.
The mufti’s announcement came amid fears that some Palestinians may defy the restrictions by forcing their way into mosques during Ramadan.
“SOME PALESTINIANS are unhappy with the restrictions, especially the closure of al-Aqsa Mosque,” explained Omar Shweiki, a 55-year-old car mechanic from the northeastern Jerusalem neighborhood of Kafr Akab. Large parts of Kafr Akab are located within the boundaries of the Jerusalem Municipality, and, like Al-Shayyah, the vast majority of its residents carry Israeli ID cards. And, like Al-Shayyah, Kafr Akab is located beyond the security barrier.
Kafr Akab, too, has been under lockdown for the past few weeks, after a number of residents tested positive for the coronavirus.
Although large parts of Kafr Akab are located within the boundaries of the Jerusalem Municipality, Israeli authorities have allowed Palestinian security forces to operate in the neighborhood, as part of efforts to prevent the spread of the coronavirus.
“The residents of Kafr Akab feel as if they live in their own enclave,” Shweiki said. “On the one hand, we belong to Israel. On the other hand, we are not getting all the services from Israel, because we are on the other side of the security barrier. We have become a suburb of Ramallah, and that’s why the Palestinian security forces are now operating here. Kafr Akab has become a little state situated between Israel and Palestine.”
Samir Natsheh, 38, another Kafr Akab resident, who works as a schoolteacher in the neighborhood, said he can’t imagine celebrating Ramadan without inviting his brothers and sisters to the iftar or going to the mosque.
“The virus has prevented Muslims, Jews and Christians from celebrating their holidays,” he said. “This is a real disaster. People here are very worried also because the economic situation is bad.”
Natsheh and other Kafr Akab residents said they did not rule out the possibility that some people would ignore the restrictions and try to force their way into closed mosques.
“The situation is very tense on the eve of Ramadan,” said Abdel Karim Dkeidek, owner of a small grocery in the nearby neighborhood of Samiramis, parts of which are also located within the boundaries of the Jerusalem Municipality.
“You have many Fatah activists who are part of the emergency committees entrusted with enforcing the coronavirus restrictions,” he said. “These activists have warned that they won’t allow the mosques to open during Ramadan. Many people here are angry. Some are saying that they won’t listen to the activists and will go the mosques despite the warnings. If that happens, you will see clashes in some places.”
BACK TO Eizariya. Abu Amjad, a Palestinian police officer at the “love barrier” set up at the entrance to the town, said he was satisfied with the situation in the town “because most people understand the importance of complying with the instructions by the health system.”
The people, Abu Amjad added, “understand that we are here for their safety.”
At the beginning of the crisis, he said, some people did not take it seriously.
“They complained that the measures we took were exaggerated and too harsh,” he recounted. “But later on, when some residents of Jerusalem were diagnosed with the coronavirus, many people here realized that we are facing a serious situation.”
Still, some PA officials this week expressed concern that many Palestinians may ignore the coronavirus restrictions during Ramadan and warned that such a move would lead to a major outbreak of the disease among Palestinians.
“Ramadan is going to be a big challenge for us,” said an official with the PA Ministry of Health. “We are doing our best to explain to the people the dangers of gathering. We hope most people will abide by the instructions for their own safety and for the safety of their families.”
On the eve of Ramadan, Abbas appealed to Palestinians to adhere to the “preventive measures” taken by the Palestinian health and security officials.
“As we receive the blessed month of Ramadan, the responsibility requires us to continue our policies to contain this dangerous epidemic, and to continue to adhere to the same preventive measures that we took,” Abbas said. “We will continue to close mosques and churches, as we are doing now, although this saddens us very much.”
He also appealed to Palestinians to refrain from “collective feasts” during Ramadan, to curb the spread of the virus.
Meanwhile, many Palestinians are beginning to feel the economic impact of the lockdowns and restrictions imposed by both the PA and Israel in light of the coronavirus pandemic.
“Many people are not working,” said 42-year-old Khawlah Sbeih, a mother of three from the northeastern Jerusalem neighborhood of Bet Hanina. “I know a number of families who can’t afford to buy food because of the crisis. On the eve of Ramadan, people are used to buying lots of food and sweets. This Ramadan is going to be the saddest Ramadan. Not only will there be less people attending the evening meals; there will also be less food on the table.”