Remembering Ramadan in Palestine

Just before the start of Ramadan, I heard from my friend living in Qalqiliya, a Palestinian city of 45,000. She told me that during the past six months, Qalqiliya has been surrounded by a concrete wall; only those who are granted permits by the Israeli Civil Administration can enter and exit the city’s single gate and this is making life very difficult for everyone. Much of the city is in ruins from the bombardment of Israeli tank shells, army intrusions, and bulldozers. She called it "a prison from which there was no escape."

Because of the travel restrictions, my friend has not seen her elderly parents in Nablus for more than four months. She is also unable to take her daughter to East Jerusalem or Jordan for much-needed medical treatment.

Two months ago, her 11-year-old daughter was shot by Israeli soldiers on her way to school and suffered serious injuries to her leg and arms. My friend did not know that Israel had imposed a curfew the night before. Doctors cannot treat her in Qalqiliya, because they lack hospital facilities, another legacy of the Israeli occupation. The hospital was under construction when I last visited Qalqiliya with donations from overseas.

My friend’s husband has no regular job. And even though she is a qualified teacher of English, she cannot work either because the schools are often closed due to Israeli bombing and raids. Overseas charities that have provided food, clothing and cash to needy Palestinian families, especially during Ramadan, are now unable to do so, thanks to North America’s obsession with terrorism, fuelled by the Israeli government. As a result, many families are suffering because they can no longer provide daily necessities of life for their children. When I was in Gaza and Rafah I saw the incredible work some charities groups were doing during Ramadan, helping to bring food, supplies, and financial assistance to orphans, the elderly, the poor, and the sick.

According to other friends living in Nablus and Gaza, the situation is no different than in Qalqiliya. Welcome to Ramadan in Palestine.

In Dec.1999, also during the month of Ramadan, I visited occupied Palestine as part of a fact-finding medical team. Upon returning home I wrote a report whose full text was submitted to prime minister Chretien’s office before the PM left on his trip to the Middle East. Sadly, he did not visit the Palestinian territories.

I wrote: "Although Israel occupied the West Bank and the Gaza Strip from 1967 until the formation of Palestinian National Authority (PLA), it has left no positive legacy in terms of infrastructural development, roads, housing, educational facilities, or in the socio-economic conditions of the population that I visited. Palestinians are living without adequate schools, hospitals, roads, sewers, clean running water, or proper healthcare, housing and social services. Adding to this legacy of utter neglect are the deteriorating economic conditions, caused since 1993 by direct Israeli measures that restrict the movements of both people and goods through the Palestinian territories and the outside world. My own personal experience, as I went through the Erez checkpoint to enter Gaza, was enough to convince me of the immense difficulties and frustrations faced by Palestinians who need to go to other parts of the West Bank for medical services, work, to visit relatives, or to conduct business."

"Furthermore, repeated arrests, torture, intimidation, humiliation, and ongoing demolition of Palestinian homes, in an accelerated pace since Mr. Barak’s election, has only added more stress to the daily lives of the average Palestinian. This sustained stress continues to perpetuate an environment of emotional, psychological and physical insecurity, for families and particularly for children, who find it exceedingly difficult to cope with persistent fear, insecurity and intimidation. Such emotions and feelings deprive Palestinian children of psychologically and physically safe spaces in which to grow and develop their sense of self. However, I would like to add that in general the undermining tactics employed by Israeli authorities to disrupt the social fabric of Palestinian society and family, in great measures, have failed to diminish either the family closeness, or undermine the resilience and strong sense of self-identity of the Palestinian people. I met, stayed with, shared the fast, prayed with and was hosted by very strong, warm and hospitable people."

It is difficult to express fully what I saw and felt because the experience of seeing an entire people subjected to daily racist and oppressive practices was deeply disturbing to me. What I saw in front of me, what I heard in countless stories of humiliation and loss, just did not seem real. It was impossible to understand how human beings can inflict so much brutality on "others" who they consider not "like us."

My personal encounter with Israeli soldiers only added to my own discomfort. Just a few steps from the Al-Aqsa Mosque, the third most holy place of Islam, I was stopped by two Israeli solders who wanted to know where I came from and where was I going. I felt scared and concerned, and subsequently decided not to attend Friday prayers at the Ibrahimi Mosque in Hebron because of the presence of armed Israeli settlers and the army.

For those of us who live in free and peaceful societies such as ours, the only hardship we experience during the month of Ramadan is to forego food for a few hours, refrain from certain physical pleasures, indulge in more prayers, and share bit of our wealth with the needy. But for Palestinians, these rights and freedoms simply do not exist. For them, every day is a struggle (or jihad) for the survival of their families and society, one in which every man, woman and child is forced to participate.

For Palestinians, fasting under such harsh economic, psychological, social, and emotional conditions is truly a labour of profound faith and obedience to their creator Allah. For me it was a lesson in courage, steadfastness in adversity, and perseverance in face of hardship and severe difficulties. In fact, it is a testimony to the incredible will of the human soul and its heroic struggle against overwhelming odds for survival with dignity, hope, patience and perseverance.

I remember the last conversation I had with some Palestinian intellectuals in Hebron, who wondered how long Palestinians could sit in silence and watch the ongoing theft of their lands and the relentless violation of their human rights and freedoms under the Oslo Peace Accord.