Jerusalem // As the second week of Ramadan drew to a close, Samih Salaymah took the 20-shekel bill his customer had handed him, raised it to his lips and kissed it. “My first sale of the day,” he explained.
Mr Salaymah mans a stall selling bread and sesame crackers close to Jerusalem’s Damascus Gate and business is very slow this Ramadan, a complaint repeated throughout East Jerusalem and in the walled Old City that houses Al Aqsa mosque, Islam’s third holiest site.
Israel has suspended the permits of 83,000 West Bank Palestinians who would have visited the city this Ramadan, a move regarded by Palestinians as a collective punishment. for last week’s attack by two Palestinian gunmen in Tel Aviv which left four Israelis dead. Although 53,000 West Bank Palestinians were allowed to attend prayers at Al Aqsa mosque on Friday, they were people who have permits for every Friday, even outside Ramadan, according to Hadar Horn, a spokeswoman for Israeli military administrators. The suspension of the 83,000 permits for Palestinians to visit relatives in Israel remains in force.
The dearth of West Bankers is keenly felt, both economically and emotionally.
Business at 120 stalls that sell toys, sweets, clothes and other wares in East Jerusalem is down by 80 per cent, according to Ka’id Razem, who heads a committee of stallholders. “Last year you’d see huge crowds in the Old City going to the mosque. Those people could not get here this year” he said, adding that 240 stall workers were affected, each of them with about ten dependants.
“There are no people, there’s no work,” said Mr Salaymah, 27. “In the regions of the West Bank, Jericho, Nablus, Jenin there is work, everywhere except here.” He is observing the fast and the tarawih — the additional Ramadan prayers — but frets about his finances not allowing him to observe in the proper manner. “I can’t make social visits because I would have to bring gifts and this year I can’t afford them. I can’t go empty-handed so I just don’t go, he said.”
In a crowded kitchen tucked away behind a bus station, Jerusalem resident Abdul Rahim Ghazali was busy overseeing the preparation of 300 iftar meals of chicken and rice to be distributed by the Zakat Al Quds Charity Committee. The daily free meals are sponsored by donations from the Emirates Red Crescent.
“Jerusalem is not the same because of the closure,” he said. “There is no festival atmosphere in Jerusalem.’’ But Ramadan is not just about that, he insisted. “I go to Aqsa for tarawih if I am strong and not tired. Ramadan is about a relationship between the worshipper and God, it is not linked to politics or changes. If they close Jerusalem or open it, the spirit between you and God stays as it is. It’s uplifting.’’
But at the nearby offices of Zakat Al Quds, the mood is decidedly downbeat. instead of distributing 1,500 iftar meals at Al Aqsa, numbers are so low this year that they are only preparing 200. Most of the people who the charity helps live outside Jerusalem in the West Bank, says the charity’s director, Hamza Al Qaissi. In previous years, they would have come to pick up their cash donations and food parcels themselves but this year they can’t. “There are many organisations in the West Bank working to help them but here in Jerusalem many donors like to give the donations to the needy by hand,” said Mr Al Qaissi. “In previous years we would bring the needy families here and call the donors to hand them the money. This has become impossible.”
People are also fearful of walking around the Old City, he added. Since last October, Damascus Gate area has been a flashpoint for the violence that has killed 207 Palestinians and 32 Israelis. The Israeli authorities say most of the Palestinians were killed while mounting stabbing attacks, while Palestinians accuse Israel of using unnecessary lethal force.
Marwan Hashlamoun, a retired printing worker from the Old City, said he was recently banned by police from entering Al Aqsa on the grounds he was a member of the murabitun, an organisation that opposes Israeli visits to the site, which is also revered by Jews as the Temple Mount. Police have outlawed the organisation, saying they fuel tensions there, but Mr Hashlamoun claims all he does at Al Aqsa is pray. “It’s an honour to be a murabit. By banning me the Israelis have awakened something in me. I think more about Al Aqsa, I read more about it. I read the Quran during Ramadan from the first word to the last word.”
For their part, Israeli officials insist their sole aim is to ensure prayer times run smoothly without disturbance.
Osama Zahadeh, a butcher in the old city, said his business is down by sixty per cent compared to last year’s Ramadan, a fact he blames on salaries failing to keep up with the cost of living. He says people are making fewer Ramadan banquets and he feels many will also be hard-pressed to provide Eidyat, the money gifts customarily given to mothers and wives on the Eid Al Fitr holiday at the end of Ramada. But the festival is not only about fasting and feasting, he added, but about families coming together. .
“The city is empty but Ramadan It has its own joy”.