Monday, April 15

Middle East Crisis: Ramadan Begins as Hunger and Fear Stalk Gaza

The Muslim holy month of Ramadan is usually a time of religious devotion, dawn-to-dusk fasting, charity, family gatherings and nightly feasts.

All that seems far away this year in Gaza, now in the sixth month of an Israeli military offensive and near-total blockade. More than 31,000 people have been killed in Israel’s bombardments and ground invasion, severe hunger is spreading and the coastal strip has been devastated. The war has erased how Palestinians here used to live and observe Ramadan.

In peaceful times, the streets of Gaza’s cities would be packed with families buying Ramadan decorations and supplies — colorful lamps, food and sweets — and preparing for days of fasting, evenings of eating with family and nights of prayer at mosques.

“I remember the festivities of the month while walking through the market streets, with chants and praises everywhere,” said Ahmad Shbat, a 24-year-old street vendor. “Everything was available, and the mosques played a vital role.”

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The war and hunger have cast a somber tone over this year’s holy month as people struggle to find affordable essentials to celebrate.CreditCredit…Mohammed Abed/Agence France-Presse — Getty Images

Now families have been separated and dispersed as most of Gaza’s 2.2 million residents have been forced to flee their homes. Many live in crowded tent encampments. Mosques that Israel claimed were used by Hamas fighters have been bombed to rubble. Gazans had hoped that a cease-fire deal would be reached before Ramadan began, but that didn’t happen.

Muslims can be exempt from fasting for many reasons, and some in Gaza have said that the hardships of war will make it difficult to observe daylong fasts. Others say that with starvation threatening Gaza, most are eating only one meal a day in any case and fasting will be no different from the hunger they have been forced to endure for months.

The enclave is nearing a famine, United Nations officials say. Almost no aid has reached northern Gaza for weeks. Gazan health officials say at least 20 Palestinian children have died from malnutrition and dehydration.

People are so hungry that some have resorted to eating leaves and animal feed. Many have been subsisting on a native wild plant known as Egyptian mallow, commonly eaten by Palestinians.

Mr. Shbat, who was displaced from his home, is sheltering with four members of his family in a school classroom in Jabaliya, in northern Gaza. He said that Ramadan this year “won’t be pleasant, especially because we will be away from our houses and loved ones.”

“There is no meaning to the month without gathering around the table with the family,” he said in a phone interview. And with the destruction of mosques, he added, it feels like “we lost the joy of Ramadan.”

Still, people are doing what they can to observe the holiday. At the school where Mr. Shbat is living, he said, people have prepared the courtyard for the nightly Ramadan prayers called taraweeh.

Iman Ali, a 42-year-old mother of four whose husband was killed in the war, said in a telephone interview from Jabaliya that she would spend her days going out to look for food for her children, two of whom are injured. But she can’t find anything in the markets to buy, she said. For more than a month she and her children have had barely anything to eat.

“Even without Ramadan, we are fasting,” she said.

Normally in the lead-up to Ramadan, Ms. Ali would be at her home in northern Gaza preparing the house for a month of worship and festivities. Instead, she spends her days walking the streets looking for food and praying for an aid airdrop from the sky.

Despite the daily struggles and uncertainty they are living through, they hold on to their faith and religious practices.

“We can’t not fast,” Ms. Ali said. “It’s Ramadan.”

Ameera Harouda contributed reporting.