Palestinians prepare for Ramadan as ceasefire talks stall


Palestinians prepared for Ramadan in a sombre mood, with heightened security measures by Israeli police and the spectre of war and hunger in Gaza overshadowing the normally festive Muslim holy month as talks to secure a ceasefire stalled.

Israel has deployed thousands of police around the narrow streets of the Old City in Jerusalem, where tens of thousands of worshippers are expected every day at the Al Aqsa mosque compound, one of the holiest sites in Islam.

The area, considered the most sacred place by Jews, who know it as Temple Mount, has been a longstanding flashpoint for trouble and was one of the starting points of the last war in 2021 between Israel and Hamas, the militant group that controls Gaza.

That 10-day conflict has been dwarfed by the current war, which is now in its sixth month. It began on Oct. 7 when an attack on Israel by Hamas-led militants killed about 1,200 people, according to Israeli tallies.

Israel’s relentless military campaign in Gaza has caused increasing alarm across the world, as the growing risk of famine is now adding to a death toll that has already passed 31,000. 

WATCH | Doctors in Gaza struggle to treat malnourished children: 

Inside a Gaza hospital where doctors struggle to treat malnourished, dehydrated children

Dr. Bilal Al-Shafi’i, who works in Rafah in southern Gaza, says children are arriving at hospital ‘like a corpse’ as they face severe dehydration and malnutrition. Warning: This video contains scenes of malnourished children.

After some confusion last month when Israel’s hard-right Security Minister Itamar Ben Gvir said he wanted restrictions on worshippers at Al Aqsa, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said the numbers admitted would be similar to last year.

“This is our mosque and we must take care of it,” said Azzam Al-Khatib, director general of the Jerusalem Waqf, the religious foundation that oversees Al Aqsa.

“We must protect the presence of Muslims at this mosque, who should be able to enter in big numbers peacefully and safely.”

Depending on lunar observations, Ramadan will begin on Monday or Tuesday of this week.

But in contrast to previous years, the usual decorations around the Old City have not been put up and there was a similar sombre tone in towns across the occupied West Bank, where around 400 Palestinians have been killed in clashes with security forces or Jewish settlers since the start of the war.

“We decided this year that the Old City of Jerusalem won’t be decorated out of respect for the blood of our children and the elders and the martyrs,” said Ammar Sider, a community leader in the Old City.

Police said they were working to ensure a peaceful Ramadan and had taken extra measures to crack down on what they described as provocative and distorted information on social media networks, and said they had arrested 20 people suspected of incitement to terrorism.

“The Israel Police will continue to act and allow for the observance of Ramadan prayers safely on the Temple Mount, while maintaining security and safety in the area,” police said in a statement.

A woman in a police-type uniform is shown near a barricade as behind her a lineup of people is shown.
Members of the Israeli security forces stand guard as Muslim worshippers wait at a checkpoint to enter the Al-Aqsa Mosque compound in Jerusalem before Friday noon prayers last month. Israeli police said during Ramadan, they would ramp up security measures around the mosque, one of the holiest sites in Islam and a longstanding flashpoint for conflict. (Ahmad Gharabli/AFP/Getty Images)

For the rest of the Muslim world, Israel’s policing of Al Aqsa has long been among the most bitterly resented issues.

Last month, Hamas leader Ismail Haniyeh called on Palestinians to march to the mosque at the start of Ramadan.

In 2023, Israeli police raided the mosque during Ramadan and were filmed beating worshippers, drawing condemnation from the Arab League as well as Saudi Arabia, with which Israel had been seeking to normalize diplomatic ties. Israeli officials said police were there to dislodge young men who had barricaded themselves inside.

Ceasefire hopes fade

Hopes for a ceasefire, which would have allowed Ramadan to pass peacefully and enabled the return of at least some of the 134 Israeli hostages said to be held in Gaza, appear to have been disappointed, with talks apparently stalled.

A Hamas official told Reuters the group was open to more negotiations but, as far as he knew, no dates had been set for further meetings with mediators in Cairo.

A woman peeks out from a tent at night, surrounded by colourful lights.
Ramadan decorations will not be displayed in the Old City of Jerusalem this year out of respect for those killed in the war in Gaza, a community leader said, but some displaced Palestinians in Rafah, in the southern Gaza Strip, are decorating their tents. (Mohammed Salem/Reuters)

In the ruins of Gaza itself, where half the population of 2.3 million is squeezed into the southern city of Rafah, many living under plastic tents and facing a severe shortage of food, the mood was correspondingly sombre.

“We made no preparations to welcome Ramadan because we have been fasting for five months now,” said Maha, a mother of five, who would normally have filled her home with decorations and stocked her refrigerator with supplies for the evening Iftar celebrations when people break their fast.

“There is no food, we only have some canned food and rice, most of the food items are being sold for imaginary high prices,” she said via chat app from Rafah, where she is sheltering with her family.

In the southern Gaza town of Al-Mawasi, Palestinian health officials said 13 people were killed in an Israeli airstrike on a tented area where thousands of displaced people were taking shelter. There was no immediate Israeli comment.

In the West Bank, which has seen record violence for more than two years and a further surge since the war in Gaza, the stakes are also high, with Jenin, Tulkarm, Nablus and other volatile towns braced for further clashes.

In Israel, fears of car ramming or stabbing attacks by Palestinians have also led to heightened security preparations.

For many of those waiting, there is little alternative but to hope for peace.

“Ramadan is a blessed month despite the fact this year is not like every year, but we are steadfast and patient, and we will welcome the month of Ramadan as usual, with decorations, songs, with prayers, fasting,” said Nehad El-Jed, who was displaced with her family in Gaza.

“Next Ramadan, we wish for Gaza to come back. Hopefully all the destruction and the siege in Gaza will change, and all will come back in a better condition.” 

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