In Jerusalem and the West Bank, Ramadan is Marred by Violence and Loss

Lorenzo Tugnoli for The Washington Post
Israeli police check the identification documents of Palestinians seeking to pray at al-Aqsa Mosque on March 15.

The war in Gaza has cast a pall over the Islamic holy month of Ramadan, a time of fasting and reflection, charity and community.

For Palestinians in the West Bank and East Jerusalem, the occasion is always bittersweet – marked by moments of joy and constant reminders of the Israeli occupation that shapes their lives.

Celebrations are circumscribed by Israeli restrictions. Families navigate checkpoints to gather for meals. Violence can interrupt prayer or play at any moment.

Since the Oct. 7 Hamas-led attack on Israel, restrictions have been tightened, Israeli military raids have intensified, and settler attacks have driven families from their homes.

The combustible atmosphere sparked concerns that Ramadan – which began on March 10 this year – might bring unrest across Jerusalem and the West Bank. The situation has remained relatively calm so far, even as anguish and loss have darkened the month’s observances.

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Holy ground

Lorenzo Tugnoli for The Washington Post
Jewish worshipers pray March 12 near the Dome of the Rock, a shrine on the site known to Jews as the Temple Mount and to Muslims as the Noble Sanctuary.

Jerusalem’s al-Aqsa Mosque compound, and the golden-domed shrine at its center, sit on a site known to Muslims as the Noble Sanctuary and to Jews as the Temple Mount. The site is sacred to both groups. It has been a frequent flash point in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

During Ramadan, hundreds of thousands of Palestinians typically gather at the site, from where they believe the prophet Muhammad ascended to heaven.

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu resisted calls from far-right ministers this year to limit al-Aqsa access for Jerusalem residents. But for West Bank Palestinians, only men over 55, women over 50 and children under 10 are allowed to make the trip to pray there.

The first Friday prayer of the fasting month passed peacefully, despite calls from Hamas for Palestinians to “confront” Israeli authorities.

“Oh God, we ask you to save the blood of our brothers in Gaza,” the imam called over the loudspeaker during the midday sermon, the most important of the week.

Khawla Marizi, 62, had traveled from Hebron to be there. Extra screening measures made the bus ride – an hour and a half long on a good day – take four hours, she said.

“It was very hard for us, the people of the West Bank,” she said. “But once I prayed in al-Aqsa, I forgot all my pains.”

“It is the place that our prophet came to,” she added. “We will never give it up.”

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The Old City

Lorenzo Tugnoli for The Washington Post
Palestinians walk through Jerusalem’s Old City on March 11 after Taraweeh, the nightly Ramadan prayer.

In the hour before iftar, the post-sunset meal, last-minute shoppers hurried around the streets of Jerusalem’s Old City, picking up bread, juice, and qatayef – cream-filled folded pancakes – to serve for dessert.

A hush settled over the cobblestones at sunset, as families headed homeward to break their fasts together. Afterward, a stream of people surged toward al-Aqsa for Taraweeh, the nightly Ramadan prayer.

Then, the Old City came alive: Men smoking shisha lined the streets. Girls bought gummy worms at stands overflowing with sweets. Boys chased one another through the alleyways.

But the scene was relatively muted compared with most years, vendors said. The owner of a tea shop estimated that foot traffic was down 85 percent this Ramadan – largely because of tightened Israeli restrictions on movement.

“We lost business during the coronavirus,” he said. “Now we lose in wartime.”

On Tuesday, March 12, celebrations in Jerusalem were marred by the killing of a 12-year-old boy by Israeli border police in the Shuafat refugee camp, on the city’s edge.

Ramy Hamdan al-Halhouli, described by relatives as a gregarious child who loved food and soccer, had gone with friends after the nightly prayer to the road behind his house to light fireworks, a common Ramadan pastime.

At the end of the road stands the barrier wall that fences off the refugee camp, and behind it, a concrete Israeli watchtower. Video obtained by The Washington Post shows Ramy stepping out into the middle of the road with a lighted firework aimed skyward. The crack of gunfire goes off and Ramy falls to the ground, a second before the firework bursts into a red shower of flame above the boys – roughly 50 yards from the watchtower.

His father, Ali Hamdan al-Halhouli, 61, heard the shot from his house and ran to the boy. An ambulance took him to a Jerusalem hospital, where he was pronounced dead. Israeli authorities held on to Ramy’s body for nearly a week before releasing it to the family for burial in the pre-dawn darkness on Monday.

“He killed my hopes, my feelings,” Ali said of the border police officer who shot Ramy. “My son was just a kid.”

As reports of the shooting circulated, Israeli Police said in a statement that the “suspect” had endangered its forces. Later, it was announced that the incident was under investigation by the Israeli Justice Ministry’s Department of Internal Police Investigations. The officer involved was questioned and released on March 13, a spokesman for the department said, and returned to service.

“That’s exactly how one should act against terrorists,” Itamar Ben Gvir, Israel’s far-right national security minister, who oversees the police, wrote on Telegram after Ramy’s death.

At least 112 Palestinian children were killed in conflict-related violence in the West Bank and East Jerusalem between Oct. 7 and early March, according to UNICEF, the United Nations children’s agency.

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Lorenzo Tugnoli for The Washington Post
At their home in Balata, relatives mourn the loss of Mohammad al-Qatawi, 43, who was killed in January in an Israeli drone strike in Nablus.

The northern West Bank city of Nablus is at once a commercial hub and a hotbed of Palestinian militancy. It is famous for producing tahini and sweets, especially during Ramadan. But new Israeli restrictions since Oct. 7 are crippling the economy. Many Nablus residents are out of work and struggling financially.

On Wednesday morning last week in the Balata camp, a maze of narrow alleys that’s home to some 33,000 refugees, the local committee of the Palestine Liberation Organization was preparing iftar meals of chicken, rice and potatoes to hand out to 700 people – nearly double the number who relied on food aid in previous years, local officials said.

Fewer customers are coming to Ahmad Misheh’s shop on Balata’s main road to buy luqma, a special Ramadan pastry, Misheh said. But the absence he feels more acutely is that of his 21-year-old son Mustafa, whose fast fingers expertly rolled the balls of dough in years past.

Mustafa, whom Misheh described as an “active” fighter in the camp, was arrested in August 2022 for shooting at an Israeli checkpoint. No one was hurt in the incident.

After Oct. 7, family visits to the Israeli prison where Mustafa is held were suspended. “Every night we sit down for the iftar, we think about him,” Misheh said. “Is he eating? Is he healthy?”

The family is holding out hope that Mustafa will be released as part of a Gaza cease-fire deal between Israel and Hamas, in which Israeli hostages would be exchanged for Palestinian prisoners. But talks so far have yielded little progress.

Israeli military raids here have become more frequent and violent since Oct. 7, families say. Mothers stay awake at night, fearing that their sons will be arrested or killed.

When the Israelis come, “I go to my room and I hide myself in bed and cover myself with blankets,” Murad al-Qatawi, 10, said last week, sitting in his family’s living room, where a bullet had pierced the window during a recent raid.

Murad’s uncle, Mohammad al-Qatawi, 43, was killed in an Israeli drone strike here in January. A fighter in the second intifada – or Palestinian uprising – Mohammad began spending time with militants in Nablus again several years ago, his family said. They said they did not know whether he had taken up arms again.

“The IDF doesn’t report about Palestinian deaths,” the Israel Defense Forces said when asked about the strike that killed him.

“There is no taste for anything without Mohammad. He was my oldest son,” his father, Juma, 72, said as he broke his fast on Wednesday evening last week, surrounded by his younger children and grandchildren. “There is no joy, no happiness.”

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Lorenzo Tugnoli for The Washington Post
Fares Samamreh, 57, breaks his fast on March 14 in the makeshift house where his family has lived since being displaced from their farm in nearby Zanuta, in the West Bank’s south Hebron hills.

This Ramadan is the first that Fares Samamreh, a Palestinian farmer and father of 18, has spent away from the land that he worked all his life.

Samamreh, 57, was born in Zanuta, a small Palestinian farming village perched on a ridge in the south Hebron hills. In the 1980s, Israelis began to build settlements nearby. But the people of Zanuta carried on: Samamreh built a small house with a corrugated metal roof for his growing family.

He and his sons harvested vegetables and tended to their sheep. If Ramadan fell in the summer, the family would break their fast with wild cucumbers. “Ya salaaaam,” Samamreh said with a smile after iftar on Thursday night last week – an expression of appreciation for life in the village.

The problems began three years ago, he said, with the arrival of extremist settlers. Their leader began to plow the family’s land and graze his own sheep there. After Oct. 7, the harassment escalated sharply, Samamreh said.

Settlers descended on the family’s home at night, threatening them and flying drones that scared their livestock. The men carried guns and wore army uniforms to appear more menacing, Samamreh said, and destroyed the family’s water supply. A group of Israeli soldiers watched as settlers harassed students at the village school, Samamreh said, and one soldier hit his 9-year-old son, Ali.

The IDF said it was not aware of the incident, adding that “the family can contact the usual channels and the issue will be reviewed.”

On Oct. 28, fear drove the Samamrehs to pack up their belongings and leave, becoming one of more than 150 families “forcibly transferred” by settlers and soldiers from rural communities in the West Bank since the war began, according to the Israeli rights group B’Tselem. The United Nations has recorded 658 attacks by settlers against Palestinians since Oct. 7.

The family resettled just over a mile away, in a makeshift structure of cinder block, concrete and sheet metal at the end of a winding dirt road. The bumpy land isn’t good for grazing or planting crops, they said.

Samamreh can still see his farmland in Zanuta from the top of a nearby hill.

“It was the work of a lifetime,” he said.