Ramadan Kareem (A Generous Ramadan)
On July 10 the Islamic holy month of Ramadan started. It ends August 8. With Hebron being a ‘holy city’ in Islam the month is extremely significant.
My Muslim associate described Ramadan as, “The month Muslims fast; devote themselves to charitable giving, peacemaking, and helping those in need. It is the time of renewing spirituality for each person. It is the time to practice social solidarity, help the poor, strengthen family ties, and pray for the world.” The aspect which is felt in the daily life of the city most is fasting. The whole city fasts from sunrise to sunset (4:30 am to 7:45 pm), not eating or drinking anything. I have taken part in the fast on occasion. Fasting is a spiritual practice that I have not participated much in, and have appreciated learning about this past month. With Ramadan being in the middle of the summer this year, and temperatures being around 85 F (30 C) dehydration is a worry.
This is especially true for those living in the South Hebron Hills, where we visit Firing Zone 918. The temperatures there are so hot, with very little shade, that most people completely change their work schedule to beat the heat. Shepherds start grazing their sheep at 5 am and finish around 10 am, then sit trying not to sweat too much. This makes visits to families tricky, with everyone half asleep, and no tea to sip or food to eat to break up the awkward silences. The day’s awkwardness is totally worth it when we are invited to join people for iftar ‘breakfast’ at sundown. These are huge meals, to make up for not eating all day. These meals usually take about 5 minutes to be gobbled up by the famished partakers. Then with energy up the conversations get going. Unfortunately it’s hard for us to visit many families after iftar because of darkness, but the ones we do visit have become very good friends.
Back in the city Ramadan does not change the working schedule nearly as much as it does in the Firing Zone, but it does have a big effect. The biggest is the number of people in the Old City. Due to the oppressive political situation in the Old City of Hebron (where CPT lives) the population has been steadily decreasing. This got to the point where a campaign called ‘Fight Ghost Town’ was started to keep people in the Old City. But during Ramadan the Old City comes alive. Dozens of merchants that I’ve never seen before line the streets selling sweets for people to take back for iftar, toys for kids, trinkets, kitchen utensils, and even cute baby animals (I have no idea what these are for). Thousands of Palestinians descend on the Old City on Fridays to pray at the Ibrihimi Mosque (Tomb of Abraham), which is supposed to be temporarily fully accessible to Muslims (more on that later.) Last Friday we counted 3,665 people during prayer time. So many they couldn’t all fit within the mosque. A Palestinian friend of mine joked that if it could be Ramadan year round, with this vibrant an old city and this many people at the mosque the military occupation of the Old City would not stand a chance.
This increase in Palestinians does not go unnoticed by the Israeli military. Over the past weeks we have seen an increase in the number of military patrols around the Old City; more Palestinians being stopped and I.D.ed, one day we passed four checkpoints and found young Palestinian men being held at each one; and soldiers acting more aggressive toward internationals. We have had multiple intense discussions with soldiers.
Here is an interaction from a few weeks ago Friday at the Ibrihimi Mosque. (I was designated to be the CPTer out of the two who did the talking)
Soldier: You cannot wear your hats and vests in this area. The Captain gave the order.
Me: We never saw the order, but ok (see picture for my full response)
(20 Minutes later)
Soldier: The captain says you can’t be here.
Me: But you just said there was an order that we could be here if we didn’t wear our hats and vests.
Soldier: No you can’t be here now.
Me: So you are changing the orders on us.
Me: But you said we could be here if we didn’t wear our hats and vests, now you say we can’t be here that’s different.
Soldier: No it’s the same order you can’t be here with hats and vests and you can’t be here without hats and vests.
Me: Weird order.
Soldier: Yes but it’s an order so leave.
We walked 20 feet away, stayed out of sight of that particular soldier and had no more troubles, but the whole thing was extremely tense. The rest of the patrol we got nervous any time some of the hundreds of soldiers walked near us, afraid we might get arrested.
One other observation is that I see soldiers leaving water bottles out at their posts a lot more these days. It may be that it’s hot, or I may just be more aware of it not, but having visible water bottles when people are fasting from drink is so callous, especially for an army trying so hard to prove that it is sensitive to Muslims SEE.
But overall Ramadan hadn’t been too ridiculous, until it came to the most important day of the month.
August 4 was Laylat-al-Qadr, the most important Muslim holy day of the year. It is the day the Qur’an was revealed to Muhammad. It is believed that prayers are the most potent on this night. It is also believed that Laylat-al-Qadr is the night when all sins may be forgiven by Allah. Muslims pray throughout the day, and especially during the night. Laylat-al-Qadr is the busiest night of the year for the Ibrahimi Mosque. Thousands of Palestinians come to pray through the night. In accord with Israel’s policy, the whole building is open to exclusively to Muslims that day. 20 years ago, after an Israeli settler massacred Palestinian worshipers during Ramadan, a major portion was cut off to be used as a synagogue for Israeli settlers, but on important holidays Muslims get to use the whole building, and the same for Jews on Jewish holidays.
While the mosque was open exclusively to Muslims during the day, it was only open for part of the night, until 3am. Although Muslims had full access inside the mosque at night they still did not have access to the park in front of the mosque. That area was still used by settlers throughout the day. The settler only road running beside the mosque was also kept as a no Muslim area. It was clear that the military took every measure to ensure that settler life would not be disturbed by the holiday.
The Israeli soldiers at the checkpoints surrounding the mosque continually restricted entrance to the area surrounding the mosque, although all Muslims were supposed to have access. At one point they informed CPT that no international observers were allowed through (although we were not going into the mosque, but meeting a group of internationals on the other side), later they did not allow any men between the ages of 18 and 35 to enter the area, at another point no men were allowed at all. The restrictions seemed to change by the minute and the soldiers at different posts were even inconsistent about who was allowed into the area.
These changing restrictions intimidated Palestinians. That night, when the area is usually teaming with worshiper, there were far fewer then usual. In years past there were waves of Palestinians entering and exiting the mosque while hundreds loitered outside. This year there was only a small trickle of people walking in and out of the mosque.
Another cause of the low numbers was uncertainty that the mosque would even be open. Earlier Israeli military authorities announced that the mosque would be closed to Muslims on the night of Laylat-al-Qadr in order for Jews to have exclusive access to it. Later they decided that Muslims could have the building for the night before it was given over to Jews.
The Jewish holiday which originally trumped Laylat-al-Qadr was Rosh Hodesh Elul, literally translated as ‘The first day of September’. Rosh Hodesh Elul is considered a minor holiday, and doesn’t even appear on most Jewish holiday calenders. Yet it nearly canceled, and did cut short the Laylat-al-Qadr celebration.
Starting at 7am Jews had full access to the Tomb of Abraham (Ibrihimi Mosque). Instead of only closing the entrance to building to Muslims, the checkpoint in front of the entrance was closed. The area surrounding the tomb is the main passage from the Old City to the east or the south. When that entrance is closed one is forced to walk over a mile to avoid the impasse. Due to the summer heat and Ramadan fast an extra mile makes any journey unbearable for Muslims in the city.
According to international law settlers should not even be in the city and the use of the Ibrihimi Mosque should be up to the religious leaders there, under Israeli policy the building should be shared equally between Jews and Muslims, both getting days for exclusive use. In the hands of the Israeli military the policy is warped to allow settlers far more exclusive days, far longer exclusive days, and far more disruptive exclusive days.
It has not been the most ‘Generous Ramadan’ for Muslims living in Hebron.
Pray that the people of Hebron have a blessed holiday (Eid) at the end of Ramadan.
Pray that I have safe travels home. (see you in a week America)
Pray for peace