Israeli checkpoints turn up the heat on Ramadan traditions in Hebron

Ramadan traditions become challenging to follow when streets have been declared 'closed military zones' and have been shut off to Palestinians.

Palestinian Mohammed Al Jaabari hauls a heavy gas canister on his shoulder past an Israeli checkpoint in the West Bank city of Hebron.
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HEBRON, Palestinian Territories // It is a blistering summer day in the West Bank city of Hebron and Mohammed Al Jaabari sweats profusely as he struggles to haul a heavy gas canister through an Israeli checkpoint.

It is not an enviable task on any day, and particularly not during Ramadan when fasting makes any physical effort doubly hard.

But hauling heavy goods and shopping across the city has become a way of life for Mr Jaabari and thousands of others who live in H2, a 4.3 square kilometre, tightly-controlled Israeli enclave where many key streets are off-limits to Palestinian cars.

"I have to cross this checkpoint several times a day and walk hundreds of metres to take groceries and supplies home," puffs Mr Jaabari, a 44-year-old steel worker.

"There's no other way other than carrying it all on my shoulders and walking," he said.

"I've already carried more than half a tonne of metal to my workshop today along with my son - all on foot," he says. "We were dragging it in the heat for almost two hours.

"Look at the tragedy we live in! Imagine doing all this hard work in this heat while you're fasting."

Many streets in H2 were shut off to Palestinians after the outbreak of the second intifada in September 2000, with the Israeli army declaring them "closed military zones".

Not only did they ban Palestinian cars, but they also boarded up houses and shops in the area, forcing many families to leave.

"During Ramadan, we are hungry and thirsty and we want to get home but cars aren't allowed because of the checkpoint," explains Mr Jaabari's 26-year-old wife Umm Saad.

"We have to carry everything we need on foot. Our life is a tragedy". Most of the restrictions are on Shuhada Street, a winding road which used to be the main thoroughfare linking the north and south of the city.

Flanked by a handful of Jewish settlement enclaves, the street was partially closed off in 1994 after local settler Baruch Goldstein opened fire on Muslim worshippers at the city's Al Ibrahimi mosque, killing 29 of them.

With more than 1,800 shops now closed down, the area - once the thriving heart of Hebron - has turned into a ghost town.

"This street has been closed for 12 years for no reason other than to please the settlers," grumbles Aref Al Jaabari, another local from the same family.

In one area of Shuhada Street, even Palestinian pedestrians are barred, meaning that those who live there have to find alternative ways of getting into their own homes - without using the front door.

Zalikha Al Muhtaseb, a 45-year-old resident of Shuhada Street, has opened a door on the roof of her house and put metal ladders on top of her neighbour's roofs so she can get in.

She says some people have to climb up three storeys to get home - a complicated and dangerous process, particularly carrying heavy bags of shopping.

"Our suffering is not easy and the problem isn't just about getting to our homes any more - it also affects people visiting us," she said.

This is particularly a problem during Ramadan, when families tend to go visiting.

"These visits, which are important both socially and in a religious sense, are almost non-existent because of the difficulty of going anywhere, especially for women and children," Ms Muhtaseb says.

Because of the closure of so many streets, moving around the city has become a challenge - a journey which once took a few minutes on foot can often take much longer, she explains.

"It used to take me 10 minutes to get to my brother's house but now I need an hour or so to get there," she sighs.

For 19-year-old local Ahmed Al Jaabari, the checkpoints have had a negative impact on all aspects of local Palestinian life - hurting them socially and economically, and also making religious observance more difficult.

"We cannot visit each other, or host Ramadan meals for family and relatives," he explains, saying the restrictions made life particularly difficult for the elderly.

"Many older people cannot get to the night prayers or the dawn prayers because of the damned checkpoints that make the distance longer," he snaps.

But the problem is not just limited to Ramadan.

"We can't build or renovate our homes because it's almost impossible to get building materials in," he says. "Even a water tank for drinking water needs coordination with the Israeli army!"