East Jerusalemites: U.S. Embassy Move Sparked Tough Ramadan Decrees by Israel

Locals claim that Jerusalem officials and police are meting out unusual fines and tickets to worshippers during the holy month

Juice seller Marwan Sumara, who sells his wares near the Damascus Gate of Jerusalem's Old City, June 6, 2018.
Emil Salman

As every year during the holy month of Ramadan, the Jerusalem Municipality has placed large signs wishing Muslim residents well in various places in the city. One such sign is positioned near Damascus Gate, the heart of East Jerusalem.

Not far away is juice seller Marwan Sumara, 77, dressed in a white fez and traditional vest. Sumara is well known to virtually every Jerusalemite who walks by. In the summer, he walks around with a large container on his back. On this particular day, he is at his stall, where by his calculations he has spent 50 years selling bags of juice to worshippers as they break their daily fast during Ramadan. He sells three flavors, lemon, tamarind and carob, which is the most popular flavor during Ramadan and always sells out first.

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He had been selling the bags without any problems, but last week municipal inspectors suddenly forbade him to do so. During their first visit to his stall, they seized his wares, spilling the juice into a nearby sewer. On subsequent days they made due with fines of 475 shekels ($133).

“Fifty years I’m here – since the Jordanian era. There are adults who bought from me when they were children. I don’t know what they want," Sumara says, referring to the officials. "I have a permit and I’m not bothering anyone.”

Sumara produces a permit allowing him to sell juice from a container on his back. But according to the municipality, he has no permission to set up a stall.

The harassment of Sumara is one of many small but humiliating attacks by authorities on Palestinians in Jerusalem during Ramadan, which ends on Thursday. The locals feel that the fact that the U.S. Embassy recently moved to Jerusalem has made the Israeli authorities more aggressive at the expense of the residents and their celebrations.

Misaharatis – the young people who traditionally wake up worshippers before the sun rises so they can eat before the daily Ramadan fast begins – in Jerusalem's Old City, May 30, 2018.
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So it was last week, on Tuesday. Hundreds of people attended a cultural festival organized by the Al-Quds Youth Club at the Damascus Gate plaza. Twenty minutes after it began, the police dispersed the celebrants by force. In general, since the transfer of the embassy, any gathering of young Palestinians on the steps of the gate has been treated by police as a potentially illegal demonstration, destined to end with dispersion of the participants. Even sitting on the stairs outside has become out-of-bounds.

These raids are in line with the recent Israel Police policy against the misaharati – the young people who traditionally wake up worshippers before the sun rises so they can eat before the daily Ramadan fast begins. Until this year the misaharati operated without interference and were an integral part of local Ramadan tradition. But this year, apparently due to complaints by Jewish settlers in the Old City’s Muslim Quarter, the police have been stopping the young people and issuing them tickets for making noise.

“Why should I be afraid if I’m not doing anything forbidden?” asks Mohammed Hajji, who is a misaharati the Old City. “There are a thousand people in the neighborhood who want this and 10 who complain. So because of them, a thousand people will start the fast without eating?”

To all these moves by local officials, one can add the municipality’s decision to ticket worshippers who park in the streets around the Old City during the mass prayers on the Fridays of Ramadan. For its part, the municipality argues that tickets are only issued to vehicles that endanger traffic.

Many Palestinians say that in the past, the city was considerate of the Muslim worshippers, as it is toward Jews during mass prayers on their festivals. Indeed, another aspect of Ramadan observance that has encountered difficulties in recent days is the custom of spending the last 10 days of the holy month praying through the night at the Al-Aqsa Mosque on the Temple Mount. Underlying this custom is the belief that prayers on these nights are more likely to be answered by God.

This year, however, police prevented worshippers who arrived with pillows and blankets from entering the Temple Mount compound. Meanwhile, Palestinians claim, unlike in previous years, the police allowed Jews and tourists to enter the area during this period, at least last week, when the 10-day countdown began.

Last Thursday, after many long months of quiet, there were disturbances on the Mount: Dozens of Palestinian youths threw stones and chairs at policemen, and a policeman and tourist were lightly injured.

“They no longer respect Palestinian tradition and do not care about the community,” says Ahmad Sub-Laban, an Old City resident and a researcher for the left-wing group Ir Amim. “Since the transfer of the American embassy, the Israelis have felt that they have won this war, and as a result a Palestinian who lives here has begun to be a less important person, and his traditions and beliefs are less important.”

According to Sub-Laban, the transfer of the embassy ignited within East Jerusalem’s Arab population a need to demonstrate their presence in the city. “They are seeking any way possible to convey their message,” he says. “But every attempt to do so was met with a blow from the Israeli establishment.”

Baseless allegations

Commenting on its treatment of Sumara, the Jerusalem Municipality said, “The peddler has a license for mobile sales; he did not meet the conditions of the license and set up a permanent stand in the area of the Damascus Gate (a plaza where peddling is forbidden by police orders). Municipal inspectors explained to him several times that it was forbidden to set up a stall in that location, but the peddler ignored them. Only after a few warnings was there enforcement.

“At the same time, the area inspector summoned the peddler to find a solution and to assist him. With the peddler’s consent, he was relocated to the inner entrance of Damascus Gate, to his satisfaction. The Jerusalem Municipality is doing as much as possible to help those selling goods on a temporary basis during the month of Ramadan and even allocated them a place to sell during Ramadan.”

As to the issue of parking tickets, the city noted, “Tickets are not issued during prayer times and up to an hour after the prayers end, along the route to the Temple Mount. The municipal parking department does enforce policies prohibiting double parking and parking that poses a risk to life. It should be stressed that enforcement is conducted on adjacent streets as usual.”

On their own behalf, municipal officials sought to stress that the city had “made an unprecedented investment in preparations for the month of Ramadan. Among other things, festive lighting was strung in the neighborhoods of East Jerusalem and in the Old City, and extensive cleaning and garbage collection operations were carried out.”

With respect to the issue of ticketing the misaharati, the police said they are “working constantly to maintain the delicate balance between guaranteeing freedom of religion and worship and maintaining public order and the quality of life for all citizens. Following complaints by Old City residents about noise, the police acted in accordance with the law.”

As for blocking the entrance to the Temple Mount, the police said: “These allegations are baseless. The police did not prevent anyone from sleeping on the Temple Mount. Every evening there have been events in the area of Damascus Gate that were attended by thousands of people. In instances where there were statements made that were against the law, the organizer himself halted the goings-on. Moreover, during Ramadan, significant concessions were made regarding entry for Friday prayers. As evidence, just this past weekend more than 305,000 worshippers arrived at the Temple Mount.”