By Al-Arabiya.net and Agencies
As most of the rest of the Islamic world welcomed Ramadan with festive treats and family get-togethers, Palestinians in the Gaza Strip and West Bank found Israel playing a significant role in their holy month celebrations.
As Gazans wearily brace for another holiday under a crippling blockade by Israel, which has sealed off the impoverished territory since the Islamist Hamas movement seized power in June 2007, Israel granted select Palestinians in the West Bank the right to visit Al Aqsa mosque in Jerusalem.
It is during the holidays that weary residents of Gaza say they feel the sanctions the most.
"Honestly, I don’t even feel like we welcome Ramadan, because year after year things go from bad to worse, with life becoming harder and more expensive," says Dina, a university student shopping in a Gaza City market.
The Muslim holy month during which the faithful fast from sunup to sundown is normally a festive time of lavish nightly feasts, holiday treats, and family reunions — all of which have become harder for most Gazans to afford.
The Israeli sanctions on Gaza coupled with the rise in world prices have resulted in widespread shortages and sent food and fuel costs soaring.
Israel has kept the sanctions in place despite a two-month-old truce with Palestinian militants, which has mostly halted rocket fire on southern Israel in a bid to keep pressure on Hamas, which the West considers a terrorist group but which was democratically elected by Palestinians.
"Ramadan this year is like any other month, because you don’t see any of the things that make it special," says Mohammed Abu Sultan, a father of four shopping for decorative Ramadan lanterns.
"Every year I buy my children lanterns but I was shocked this year because the price has almost doubled," he said, adding that his family is cutting back on holiday treats and even limiting their cooking to conserve fuel.
Even small price increases can have a dramatic effect on Gaza, where over 60 percent of the territory’s 1.5 million residents live in poverty and a majority rely on international food aid, according to the United Nations.
The Israeli closures have also decimated Gaza’s private sector, forcing the vast majority of its factories to shut down or drastically scale back operations and paralyzing the local construction industry.
Palestinians in the West Bank got a bit of good news, however, when Israel announced prior to the start of Ramadan that it would allow some, but not all Palestinians to go to the Al Aqsa mosque in East Jerusalem during the holy month.
In a statement, the Israeli military said Palestinian men aged 45 to 50 and married could join Friday prayers at the mosque, the third most sacred venue in Islam.
Palestinians in the occupied West Bank aged 30 to 45 holding a special permit issued by Israeli military authorities will be able to join them, while men over 50, and women over 45, will enjoy free access to the mosque.
In addition, the Israeli authorities will extend opening hours at army checkpoints in the West Bank, and allow gifts to be taken to the 11,000-odd Palestinians held in Israeli jails.
The measures were unveiled as Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert and Palestinian president Mahmud Abbas met in Jerusalem last week in hope of reaching a peace agreement by the end of the year.
(Originally published in Al-Arabiya – http://www.alarabiya.net/english)