It’s holiday season here in the Holy Land. Parts of the Old City are decked out for Ramadan in paper lanterns of yellow, red, and green. On the first Friday of the holiday, the often quiet streets of the Muslim Quarter were packed. Tiny boys screamed the price of sweets to hungry passersby, many of whom are fasting from sundown to sunset every day this month. Palestinians from all over Israel and the Palestinian territories pile into buses and cars and travel here for jummah, the weekly communal prayers, at Al-Aqsa Mosque, the holy site where Muslims believe Muhammad prayed. “We can enter Al-Aqsa just on Friday, just in this holy month in Ramadan. In other months, we can’t enter here,” said Fatima Bader, a 19-year-old Muslim woman who was headed into the mosque with her mom and a couple of other women. “So it’s really emotional.”
The mundane ins and outs of permits and politics pervade life for Palestinians here, but especially so as Ramadan begins this week. On Monday, the U.S. embassy opened in Jerusalem. On Tuesday, Palestinians observed what they call Nakba Day—nakba is the Arabic word for “catastrophe”—commemorating the Arab defeat in the 1948 war to prevent the formation of the Jewish state, and the subsequent displacement of Palestinians from their villages and land. Throughout all of this, violence raged in Gaza, as protesters massed along the border fence with Israel. As some protesters rushed the barrier, Israeli forces released tear gas and fired on those who approached, fearing a massive breach. Hamas, the militant group–cum–political party that runs Gaza, organized the so-called March of Return with the goal that Palestinians would be able to reclaim their ancestral homes in what is now Israel. The group later claimed that 50 of the 62 Gazans who were killed during the riots on Monday and Tuesday were their members, although that claim is nearly impossible to verify, and the group may have been purposefully overstating its influence.
As the Gaza protests wind down, at least for now, and the television crews pack up, this will be the story that continues: a daily existence of permits and politics, of special sweets and prayerful seasons, with constant reminders of the underlying tensions that blew up this week but will soon settle back into an uneasy status quo before blowing up again.
While the cloudy arcs of tear gas and towering plumes of smoke from burning tires in Gaza captivated the Western media, the quieter story—of what it’s been like this week for other Palestinians, who haven’t been part of massive, chaotic protests—is just as important.
“I don’t come out a lot. I stay inside,” said a woman named Sara, an American-born Palestinian who lives in Jerusalem with her husband, Samr. Still, the political situation has pervaded everything, she said, from conversations at iftars, the late-night meals that break the Ramadan fast, to gatherings at Al-Aqsa. “You can’t concentrate when you’re praying.”
Samr told me he was nervous about coming to Al-Aqsa through crowds of angry people and Israeli soldiers, who stand in clumps at the every entrance to the mosque. “I’m kind of an old guy. I just want to live and take care of my family and my work. I’ve got a lot of bills,” he said. “But deep inside, no one is happy.”
Most of Jerusalem is currently in a festive mode. Jews will soon celebrate Shavuot, when they believe God gave them the Torah at Mount Sinai. Christians will observe Pentecost, when they believe the Holy Spirit descended on the early apostles and the Church was born. For Muslims, Ramadan marks the first revelation of the Quran to the Prophet Muhammad. Throughout the holy month, Muslims say special prayers, don’t eat or drink during the day, and gorge themselves on Ramadan-specific treats at night.
“I wait for this day to come every year,” said Bader. She and her family usually buy big piles of ka’ek, a kind of long, SpaghettiO-shaped bread covered in sesame seeds. (“They’re like bagels, somehow,” she said.) She loves saying the special evening prayer for Ramadan, called tarawih, at Al-Aqsa: “It’s night and the wind is going, and everything is just so cool,” she said. “You feel so close to God when you are in a holy place like this.”
Even though Bader is from Hebron, just 20 miles away, she has to wait for Ramadan to visit because Palestinians who live in the West Bank normally cannot come into Jerusalem outside of special circumstances like a medical emergency. During Ramadan, however, the Israeli government widely grants travel permits to people who want to come pray on Fridays. For many people, the holiday is more than an opportunity to pray and buy delicious rosewater desserts. It’s a rare chance to visit family who live in Israel, shop, and take trips to see the Mediterranean.
During Nakba Day gatherings in Ramallah earlier this week, some Palestinians worried about the possibility that Israel would shut down these permits due to the Gaza protests. “I think Israel and the U.S. decided to announce to open the embassy on this day, before Ramadan, to make the people very nervous and very stressed,” said Ahed Awad, a 28-year-old woman. The U.S. has said it selected the date to coincide with Israel’s independence day. Her brother-in-law, Omar Hammad, pointed out that it seemed unlikely that Israel would cut the permits, since Muslims spend a lot of money in Israeli stores during Ramadan. “Anything is possible with the people who kill children,” she replied, likely referring to Layla Ghandour, an 8-month-old baby who died during a Gaza protest after she inhaled tear gas. (Her doctor later said she may have died from effects of a congenital heart defect.)