A Sad Ramadan

A bad Ramadan for the Palestinians is an ominous development for us, too. If more Israelis would show a little more compassion for the fate of the Palestinians, or at least internalize the awareness that as long as things are bad for them they are going to be bad for us too, things might look different.

This is perhaps the most difficult Ramadan they have ever experienced. The old-timers still remember Ramadan of 1948, which fell a few months after their calamity, and the adults remember the Ramadan of 1967, a few months after their second calamity. But for all the rest, this is the hardest Ramadan. The omens are not good for this holy month, which began Friday. It's a pity that most Israelis don't care. But a bad Ramadan for the Palestinians is an ominous development for us, too. If more Israelis would show a little more compassion for the fate of the Palestinians, or at least internalize the awareness that as long as things are bad for them they are going to be bad for us too, things might look different.

In the meantime, Israel has announced a "series of moves to ease the situation" to mark the holy month, most of which are a few meaningless propaganda moves, against the background of the sea of harsh decrees that have washed over the Palestinians during the last year. And the foreign minister has told the General Assembly of the United Nations in New York that Israel doesn't want to rule them. "We want them to breathe freedom, to create a new economy, to keep their traditions, to enjoy the highest level of education," Shimon Peres told the world. Peres, a former prime minister and a senior minister in almost every government since the onset of the occupation more than 34 years ago, could certainly contribute to a situation in which the occupation would end and even more so to one in which the Palestinians could "breathe freedom," as he said movingly. Now, though, Peres is part of a government that is oppressing the Palestinians more than all its predecessors did. Still, he is at least talking about their distress and about the aspiration to end it, while most of his colleagues take no interest at all in that possibility.

As this Ramadan begins, the Palestinians are in the worst situation they have been in since the Israeli occupation befell them. Their lack of freedom has reached a level they have never known before. Only a few peoples in the world still live under such dire conditions of occupation, and none of them have been subjected to occupation for such a lengthy period. The very limited freedom that the Palestinians enjoyed until this past year has disappeared as though it never was; now, it seems to be a beacon of liberty in the light of their present conditions. Does anyone still remember that once the Palestinians could travel anywhere they wanted?

During this Ramadan, Palestinian families will not be able to gather for the festive evening meal that ends the daily fast. Family members living in a different city or village, however close by, will not be able to visit relatives to partake of the meal with them in the traditional manner. The Israeli occupation, which intrudes on every sphere of life, has this year reached their holiday tables and will decide for them who is going to eat with whom. On top of that, Israel is also deciding what will be served in the meals: With such a cruel, tight closure, which has created a 40 percent unemployment rate, according to Israeli data, poverty has turned into hunger. Many Palestinian families will not be serving the traditional meat dishes this year during Ramadan. The presents for the children will be more modest, if they are given at all.

Most Palestinians who will want to pray at a holy place will not be able to get there. Only residents of East Jerusalem will be permitted to reach Al-Aqsa Mosque, while in distant Gaza, but also in nearby Ramallah, the devout can only dream about freedom of worship - the very principle that Israel and the Jewish people demanded for so many years.

About 750 Palestinian families will mourn their dead of the past year; another 1,600 families will miss their loved ones who are incarcerated in Israeli prisons, some for serious acts they committed a decade or two ago (and more, in some cases) together with their comrades who were released and became leaders. Others, who during the past accursed year tried to find a day's illegal work in Israel, are now languishing in an Israeli prison that had been shut down because its conditions were unfit for human beings. The facility may not be fit for people, but it's good enough for Palestinians who are "present illegally."

Most of the Palestinian detainees have not seen their families for more than a year, because family visits to prisons were stopped almost completely. Do Israelis know their government has blocked family visits to prisoners for such along time? Now, as part of the holiday gestures, Israel has promised to permit visits, which are normally a basic, minimal right, but no one knows for sure how many Palestinians will be permitted to make such visits. That they will face ordeals on their trip to the prisons, goes without saying. Does anyone still remember that Israel committed itself to release most of these prisoners?

A bitter fate also awaits the ill and pregnant women during this Ramadan. For the most part, they will be able to get to the poorly equipped hospitals in the territories only after enduring endless hassles. In some cases, as happened with the dying infant Abdulalh Abu Zaida, they will be turned back by Israeli soldiers at roadblocks. The students will return home for meager meals and reflect on the year they lost - some of them are unable to get to their place of study, some have nowhere to get to because their university was shut down because of the Israeli army's "encirclement" policy. Tens of thousands of students who have dreams and ambitions, the overwhelming majority not terrorists and with no desire to perpetrate terrorism, will wake up to another day of idleness and despair on every day of the holy month. For them, too, as for everyone in the territories, this will be a terribly sad Ramadan. That's bad news, very bad news, and not just for them.