A sombre Ramadan begins in Gaza

Millions of Muslims fasting around the world will be observing the month in solidarity with Palestinians

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With the first day of Ramadan upon us, the Muslim world is in a difficult place. Hopes pinned on a ceasefire in the Israeli war in Gaza being negotiated this week have not yielded the results hoped for, which has left Palestinians in an especially grievous situation.

Instead of family gatherings, special Ramadan prayers (taraweeh), iftars, night markets, and the sight of colourful lanterns, in Gaza – where at least 31,000 people have been killed since October – there is acute hunger, malnutrition, fear, a lack of basic amenities and persistent trauma. One Gaza resident employed at Al Shifa Hospital in the north told The National: "We’ve been fasting for five months, living on one meal."

Regardless of whether one is Muslim or not, it serves us all to be mindful of the Islamic practice of deep contemplation and its value to people of all faiths. During this particularly distressing time in the Middle East, there is much to reflect on. But the onus is on the relevant stakeholders to strengthen efforts to secure a ceasefire and eventually put in place a long-term peace that, as previously noted in these pages, requires a two-state solution agreed to by all parties.

Ordinary Gazans have their will tested every single day. Families have been ripped apart and displaced across camps. There are few homes to decorate with Ramadan lights, as Israeli bombardment has destroyed or damaged more than 60 per cent of homes in the territory. Celebrations have little room for the 3,000 women who have been widowed since the war broke out, and for the 10,000 children who have lost their fathers, according to a UN report in January.

The West Bank continued to witness terrible attacks and the arrest and killing of Palestinians on a regular basis. Little relief is expected from the burden of occupation.

Amid all this, there also looms the spectre of conflict in Jerusalem over access to Al Aqsa Mosque, the third holiest site in Islam. Prayer at the mosque, particularly during Ramadan, is deeply important to many Palestinians. But at innumerable times in the past, including last year and the year before, restrictions by Israeli police, limiting access to the site, have led to violence.

As it stands, no Palestinian from the occupied West Bank can access Jerusalem. Around Ramadan, it is not unusual for extremist Israeli politicians to stoke tensions leading to violence around the holy sites – with Al Aqsa being the historical example and a central flashpoint in the Palestinian-Israeli conflict.

While the situation today is tense amid the war, Israel has said it will not impose additional restrictions on access to Al Aqsa. There are, however, hardliners in the Cabinet, such as National Security Minister Itamar Ben-Gvir, who have been vocal about banning Muslims from the holy sites.

Such a dangerous provocation should have no place in an already volatile time. On all sides, any temptation to give in to divisive politics and sow even more unrest must not be allowed. Cool heads and responsible leadership is of utmost importance in these times.

The situation is dire in other parts of the world, too. On Friday, the UAE welcomed a UN Security Council resolution on Sudan – where 18 million people are facing acute hunger – to call for a ceasefire during Ramadan. It is a reminder that turmoil in the wider region must end and the international community needs to push for it. There has to be a point where lives can begin to get rebuilt and for there to be peace in Gaza. As one displaced Palestinian resident, Umm Mohamed, from Rafah, told this paper: “We will hang the lanterns outside our tent.” It is, in some ways, the spirit of Ramadan that needs to prevail.

Published: March 11, 2024, 3:00 AM