Palestinian Authority Threatens Jail Time for Breaking Ramadan Fast, Stoking Social Media Furor

Palestinian officials insist ruling was nothing new, but announcement sets off a backlash on social media supporting the separation of religion and state

Palestinians make traditional sweets on the first day of the fasting month of Ramadan in Khan Younis, in the southern Gaza Strip May 27, 2017
IBRAHEEM ABU MUSTAFA/REUTERS

Two days into Ramadan, the Palestinian Authority’s prosecutor has declared that anyone breaking the daily fast too early could face a month in prison, stoking a furor on social media in both the West Bank and Israel.

Palestinian officials said the ruling was nothing new and was in line with a statute dating to the 1960s when Jordan ruled the West Bank. The law deems it a criminal offense to offend public sensibilities by openly breaking the fast before sunset.

While some people online have supported the prosecutor’s position, saying it’s a norm that must be maintained, others have criticized it as religious coercion.

Many addressed the prosecutor directly in video clips, demanding his intervention. Questions included “Are there no criminals left for you to deal with? Is this what’s bothering you?” “What about the merchants who use Ramadan to hike prices and exploit consumers during this holy month?” “Why don’t you punish much graver offenders during this month?”

The clash also touched on issues of state and religion and whether a Palestinian state would separate religion from state.

Nur Odeh, a former Palestinian government spokeswoman, posted a long message to the prosecutor on her Facebook page.

“The Palestinian state’s declaration of independence stipulates specifically that Palestine respects freedom of religion and freedom of expression. So what’s your explanation for implementing a law that, based on an ancient edict, allows the arrest of anyone who breaches the fast?” she wrote.

“Don’t you think such a law infringes on freedom of religion and freedom of others’ religion and faith? Should the Palestinian police use their resources and personnel to make arrests for breaking a law that opposes the principles of the Palestinians’ declaration of independence? I know you’re not the legislator, but you have the power to set priorities regarding the law’s implementation.”

Odeh said that after posting her message she was contacted by the prosecutor’s office and told that no new directives had been issued and that the matter sparked a debate because of an interview the Ramallah district prosecutor had given.

The debate is part of the increasing tension between religious and secular segments of Palestinian society and in the Arab world. It also stems in part from the public’s anger toward the PA.

These issues also came up during the Palestinian prisoners’ recent hunger strike in Israel, when the PA was lambasted for not doing enough to support the prisoners while taking harsh steps against protesters and arresting young people and activists who supported the strikers.

Most Arab states implement the law regarding the Ramadan fast and penalize those who break the fast too early, although few people commit such offenses in public.