By Joharah Baker – The West Bank
Every year Palestinians along with the wider Muslim world, observe the Islamic month of fasting, Ramadan. This year, according to the lunar calendar, Ramadan began on September 1, the same day as the new school year. While Ramadan is designed to primarily be a month of fasting, prayer and meditation, it is also a time when families get together to enjoy elaborate meals and desserts, and ironically when food becomes the main focus of the day.
This would be fine if it were not for the economic slump Palestinians are in today. With the extra expenses of Ramadan coupled with all the necessities of the new school year, most Palestinian families are feeling the financial crunch. For many, instead of being a month of family bonding, good food and enjoyment, Ramadan this year is a financial burden. And for those who have somehow overcome the financial load of the month, the political situation is sure to put a damper on their festivities.
While Ramadan usually means families spend more money on food, especially since there are more communal dinners with elaborate and meat-laden dishes, this year the burden is even heavier with the rise in prices. Palestinians everywhere are complaining that the price of basic foods such as meat, bread and rice have shot up astronomically. At the same time, salaries are either the same or amount to less with the devaluation of the US dollar. In some instances, they have not been paid at all like in the case of Palestinian Authority civil servants.
Currently, there are approximately 150,000 Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza on the government’s payroll. While the salaries differ according to position, on average a PA employee makes around NIS 1,800 [$500]. This is extremely low given the standard of living in the Palestinian territories where a gallon of milk costs over $3. What’s worse, PA employees often go months without pay when the government is strapped for cash. This year alone, the PA budget has a whopping $400 million deficit, for which the government largely blames the donor community along with Israel.
In December 2007, the Paris Conference of donor countries pledged $7.7 billion in aid to the Palestinian Authority over the next three years, much of which has so far not reached. As a result, the PA pays its employees late, intermittently or not at all, with the government warning that if donor countries don’t cough up what they promised, by October, the PA’s coffers for salaries will be empty.
This month however, is covered, according to foreign minister Riyad Malki, who said civil servants would receive their full salaries at the beginning of the month.
The school year has only increased the burden on Palestinians. School tuitions, uniforms, books and book bags are all basic necessities that families have to dish out at the start of each year, even before planning their evening meal that will break the day’s fast.
If all else fails and Palestinians still manage to enjoy the month with whatever means available, there is always the ubiquitously gloomy political situation to cast a shadow over their joy. This year, like so many before, Palestinians are plagued with the evil trappings of the Israeli occupation. The 600 or so checkpoints throughout the West Bank are still in place with those around Jerusalem as tight as ever. Even the checkpoints Israel ‘removed’ such as the Bir Nabala checkpoint that separates several Ramallah-area villages from the city, were replaced by flying checkpoints. Residents could be held up for any given time, depending on the Israeli soldiers patrolling the military post.
Furthermore, the separation wall that has cut into large swathes of the West Bank, continues to separate families who, if during no other time, like to get together during Ramadan.
Last year, a few adventurous young men were even able to climb over the eight-meter cement wall on the Jerusalem-Ramallah road that separates Israeli-controlled Jerusalem territory from the West Bank. This feat in itself should have afforded them permission to hop onto the other side to break their Ramadan fast with family and friends in Jerusalem. But Israel, always on the ball where their so-called security is concerned, would not have it. For the past few months, Israeli security guards have been detouring cars away from whole sections of the wall while construction workers installed layers of barbed wire over the top of the barrier to ensure that nothing short of a bird could leap over.
Let us not forget the religious importance of this holy month. The Aqsa Mosque is the third holiest site in Islam and has been frequented by millions of Muslims from around the world who come to make their pilgrimage to this holy place. The narrow alleyways of Jerusalem’s Old City, which lead to the main gates of Al Aqsa are strung with colored Ramadan lights and lanterns. The mood is festive in Jerusalem’s Old City and is enjoyed by those who are fortunate enough to be able to travel there. Once again, this year thousands of Muslims in the West Bank and Gaza will have to forgo their desire to visit the Aqsa Mosque during Ramadan because Israeli imposed restrictions prohibit West Bankers from entering Jerusalem. While those who live in the Old City may take the majestic grounds of Al Aqsa for granted, having grown accustomed to the regal gold plates adorning the Dome of the Rock, this is a dream just beyond reach for most Palestinians. Each year, pious Muslims hope for this one request to be granted – to be able to pray in Al Aqsa – and each year Israel only tightens the noose even more, allowing only a trickle of West Bankers to visit the mosque.
Nevertheless, Palestinians continue to look forward to Ramadan, even if they are unable to enjoy the costly feasts they once hosted. The economic deterioration in the Palestinian territories is clearly reflected in the spread at dinner tables this year during Ramadan. Still, Palestinians should keep in mind that the month is not about how much food we can consume but how much we can endure without.
– Joharah Baker is a Writer for the Media and Information Programme at the Palestinian Initiative for the Promotion of Global Dialogue and Democracy (MIFTAH). She can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org. (Originally published in MIFTAH – www.miftah.org. Republished in PalestineChronicle.com with permission.)