Palestinians clash with Israeli forces after a rally to mark the 70th anniversary of what Palestinians call their Nakba, or catastrophe, the uprooting of hundreds of thousands in the Mideast war over Israel's 1948 creation, in the West Bank city of Bethlehem, on May 15, 2018. (AP Photo/Majdi Mohammed)

Embassy move, Gaza crisis make for somber start to Palestinians' Ramadan

JERUSALEM (RNS) – Most years, the eve of Ramadan brings a flood of shoppers to Abdallah Sarendah’s candy and food shop, located on a busy street opposite the walls of the Old City in East Jerusalem. This year, there was barely a trickle.

“There’s a general strike so almost every store is closed and most people are staying home today,” Sarendah said, eyeing his nearly empty shop, which was allowed to remain open because it sells food.    

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Palestinian leaders ordered the public to shutter stores, schools and government offices on Tuesday (May 15) to mourn the lives of 60 Palestinians shot by Israeli forces at the Israel-Gaza border the day before. They were protesting Monday’s opening of the U.S. Embassy in Jerusalem and Israel's partial blockade of Gaza on the 70th anniversary of Israel’s founding – what Palestinians call the Nakba, or “catastrophe.”

The Hamas government in Gaza called the killings a massacre and has vowed to continue the “March of Return” until Israel is destroyed and becomes Palestine. Israeli and American officials accused Hamas of inciting violence and endangering Gazans’ lives by encouraging them to breach Israel’s border, sometimes violently.    

Women walk past shuttered stores in East Jerusalem on May 15, 2018. Despite it being the eve of Ramadan, the Palestinian leadership called a general strike to mourn the killing of 60 Palestinians by Israeli forces at the Israel-Gaza border the day before. Palestinians were shot while protesting Monday’s opening of the U.S. Embassy in Jerusalem on the 70th anniversary of Israel’s founding – what Palestinians call the Nakba, or catastrophe. RNS photo by Michele Chabin

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Adding to the solemnity in the Palestinian street: This year, the Nakba coincides with the first night of Ramadan, the Muslim holy month.

The mood is of suffering,” said Mohammed Dajani, a Palestinian political scientist, referring not only to the convergence of political events preceding Ramadan but to the Palestinians’ struggle for independence.    

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While suffering can lead to hopelessness, Dajani said, Ramadan helps Muslims channel their suffering into compassion.

“The underlying principle of Ramadan is to feel the suffering and pain of others and to have empathy for others. So the fact that there is suffering gives Ramadan that much more meaning. The Quran instructs us to have patience,” said Dajani, founder of the Wasatia movement, which calls for moderation and tolerance within Palestinian society and Islam. “I believe that from this suffering will emerge something good. We have to believe that God is testing us and that eventually will open a window of hope for us.”

Palestinian medics and protesters evacuate a wounded youth during a protest at the Gaza Strip's border with Israel, east of Khan Younis, Gaza Strip, on May 14, 2018. Thousands of Palestinians are protesting near Gaza's border with Israel, as Israel prepared for the festive inauguration of a new U.S. Embassy in contested Jerusalem. (AP Photo/Adel Hana)

 This image is available for web and print publication. For questions, contact Sally Morrow.

Imad Muna, owner of an East Jerusalem bookstore, was 3 years old when Israel seized control of the eastern side of the city from Jordan during the 1967 Middle East war. For him, he said, “all Ramadans are more or less  the same.”

“We have been under occupation ever since,” Muna said. “Jerusalem is not Gaza,” he acknowledged, alluding to the Israeli social benefits and freedom of movement Palestinians in Jerusalem enjoy, unlike those in Gaza and the West Bank.

“But we all share the suffering. What happened in Gaza yesterday affects all Palestinians.”

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Muna called it a “crime” that the American government “unilaterally” decided to relocate its embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem, especially during the week that Palestinians commemorate the Nakba.

“Trump didn’t care about the Nakba. It’s not in his vocabulary. He looked at the Israeli calendar. Plus, the final status of Jerusalem is one of the five issues Israelis and Palestinians once vowed to solve through peace negotiations. Bringing the embassy to Jerusalem and saying Jerusalem is the capital of Israel creates facts on the ground,” Muna charged.

As in previous years, Muna and his family are planning a low-key Ramadan, a holiday devoted to introspection that culminates in the Eid al-Fitr feast in a month’s time.

A butcher shop stocks up for the start of Ramadan in East Jerusalem on May 15, 2018. RNS photo by Michele Chabin

 This image is available for web and print publication. For questions, contact Sally Morrow.

“This year will be the same as always. We will fast, we will pray. During Eid we will celebrate by going to the mosque, to visit our families, to visit the cemeteries where our loved ones are buried.”

Osama Musa, a baker, is also anticipating a sad Ramadan.

“There will be more confrontations. More innocent people will die,” he predicted. 

In his store, Sarendah said he will follow his usual practice of keeping his shop closed during the entirety of the fast but opening it in the evenings, when eating is permitted. 

Doing so will bring in less income, but faith, he said, is more important than profits.

“As it is, business has been going down. People don’t have work. They don’t have money to spend. Today I have this store but in three months? Who knows?”

Palestinian students walk down a closed shopping street in Jerusalem's Old City during a general strike on May 15, 2018. Palestinians on May 15 mark the Nakba Day, or catastrophe, when hundreds of thousands of Palestinians fled or were expelled from their homes during the 1948 Israel-Arab war. (AP Photo/Eyal Warshavsky)

 This image is available for web and print publication. For questions, contact Sally Morrow.