The month of Ramadan is a time for fasting during daytime and feasting
at night, but this year's Ramadan in Palestine looks to be especially
bleak for a population under siege by an international economic
blockade, and under the ongoing yoke of Israeli military occupation.
At the beginning of Ramadan, a time of celebration for Muslims, purchases were restricted to mostly basic needs such as vegetables and meat — traditional Ramadan sweets like dates and pastries have had to be carefully rationed to be able to last through the month.
The severity of the suffering was most evident amongst public sector employees who have not received their salaries for 7 months. For these people shopping has become akin to begging due to the level of debt that they have already accumulated.
One governmental employee asked: "I don't know what to do in the very beginning of Ramadan without getting my salary"
Another woman who is a teacher said: "The world seems to be fighting us on our bread and its better for them to keep the employees away of the political bargaining which has become very clear."
Gaza's children used to light colorful lanterns to celebrate Ramadan, the holy month of fasting. But this year, many parents can't afford even the small $1 toys, as Gaza sinks deeper into poverty and readies for the bleakest Ramadan yet.
"These days, I just want to cry," said Umm Emad, a mother of six. The only lantern in her house is a paraffin lamp she keeps for Gaza's frequent power cuts.
Ramadan, which began Saturday in the West Bank and Gaza and other parts of the Muslim world, is a time of fasting from dawn to dusk, piety and giving to the poor. It's also a festive month, with large family meals after sundown, social get-togethers and new clothes for everyone.
But Gaza is poorer than ever, and many will not be able to observe all Ramadan traditions. The U.N. feeds some 1 million of Gaza's 1.4 million people. One of the U.N. agencies, the World Food Program, added some 60,000 needy people — for a total of 220,000 — to its roster in September alone.
Foreign aid, which helped prop up the Palestinian Authority for more than a decade, dried up in March after the Islamic militant Hamas came to power. For long periods, Gaza was also cut off from the world, particularly after Hamas-allied militants kidnapped an Israeli soldier in June.
In the past three months, Israeli incursions to stop rocket fire and find smuggling tunnels have killed more than 200 Palestinians, most of them militants. Electricity is rationed, in six-hour blocks, after Israel's military bombed Gaza's main power plant following the kidnapping of the soldier.
On the political front, moderate President Mahmoud Abbas has so far failed to set up a national unity government that would be more acceptable to the West. His efforts are "back to zero," he said Saturday, after Hamas said it would not participate in a government that recognizes Israel.
Gaza's poor have tried to infuse some joy into Ramadan. In a holiday cleanup, Hamas youth swept a main city street, and burned garbage, including dozens of old shoes, leaving the smell of rubber in the air.
But many are feeling the strain.
Umm Emad, 45, said her husband beat their 10-year-old daughter after she pleaded for a Ramadan lantern. The mother of six, who would not give her real name because she said she is ashamed of being poor, works part-time selling clothes in a relative's shop, for 15 shekels ($3.5 dollars) a day. Her husband sells clothes at a stand outside a U.N. office. On a good day, makes a profit of 20 shekels ($5). Before Hamas came to power, he earned about 90 shekels ($22 dollars) a day as the owner of a small clothing factory.
"In the good days, my husband used to buy lanterns for all the children, and the neighbour's children, because their father died, so they wouldn't feel left out," she said.
Like many Gazan families, Umm Emad has not yet bought any food for the household, although traditionally this is done a day before Ramadan begins.
In Gaza City's Shati refugee camp, grocer Adel Mudalal said he is not stocking ingredients for Ramadan desserts, such as dried apricot paste. "I have no stock to sell , and the neighborhood has no money to buy," he said.
Camp resident Deeb al-Ras' 11 children rarely buy from Mudalal's grocery. Al-Ras' restaurant went bust when the Palestinian uprising against the Israeli occupation began in 2000, and just one of his sons works, as a policeman, but hasn't been paid for months. The family will get by on rice and lentils donated by the U.N., al-Ras said, but with few vegetables or meat to supplement their diet.
Umm Saber, 58, a widow living with her son's family, said she was hungry most of the time. "I don't know what I'll be breaking my fast on," she said, "but I will eat something. Even if it's just a spoonful of yogurt. God always finds a way."
In a sweets shop in the upper-class Gaza City suburb of Saqallah, five or six people stop by every day, asking for leftovers, said salesman Osama Qandil, 24. "We don't turn them away, there's always a little extra for the poor," he said.
Gaza's shrinking middle class can still afford to spend 20 shekels ($5) — or the day's wage of an unskilled laborer — at Qandil's shop for a kilo (2.2 pounds) for kunafa, a popular holiday dish of vermicelli drenched in butter, wrapped around white cheese and then soaked in syrup.
But those who are still relatively well off try to keep a low profile.
Umm Ammar, 42, a mother of eight, said the family no longer eats out.
"Our situation is fine, but it's the general atmosphere that's depressing. We don't barbecue on the beach anymore, because that's insensitive and rude. Some people smelling the meat can't afford bread," she said.
She said years ago, colored lights were strung up in Gaza's main streets during Ramadan. Now, she said, "even if Gaza had the lights, there'd be no electricity for them to work."
*this article was sourced from Ma'an News Agency and the Associated Press