by Eva Bartlett (Special Reports, Crescent International Vol. 41, No. 7, Shawwal, 1433)
How do Muslims celebrate Eid under occupation? Eva Bartlett, a Canadian peace activist who has been on several aid convoys, describes her experiences in Gaza under siege.
Canadian peace activist Eva Bartlett, who has been on several humanitarian aid missions to Occupied Palestine, writes about some of her reflections on the conditions in Gaza.
Sunday, August 19, the first day of Eid following a month of Ramadan fasting, the older sons of the house go out visiting their married sisters, and the wives of the house stay at home, offering ma‘mul (date-stuffed round or crescent shaped cookies), chocolates, and bitter Arabic coffee (a lighter brown and more bitter coffee than the everyday strong qahwah — cardamom-infused Arabic coffee — served in cafes) to their siblings and other guests.
Children are coerced into their best — ideally new — clothes, their hair groomed perfectly. Within an hour, the younger children regain their usual play-mussed appearances as they play in the streets (where else to play?). If lucky, they collect a sparse amount of shekels from their older relatives and siblings for Eid, to spend on toys or clothes or treats.
I visit with the women in our house, stopping by each family's apartment to wish them a happy Eid, passing along the familiar greetings of kulu sanah wa-anti tayyibah, wa-sihatuki tamam (which roughly translates to “happy new year, may your health remain good”).
Um Fadi (Fadi’s mother; the Arab tradition is to address the parents as mother and father of the oldest son) and Um Oday explain the tradition of baking ma‘mul, offering me piles of date-filled cookies and decorative shot glasses of the coffee. Asking about a plate of fish and the aroma of fish cooking throughout the house, I am told it is a customary food on the first day of Eid.
Although the fasting finished with the last day of Ramadan, the first day of Eid is so filled with sweets and coffee that the normal shared family meals, modest as they are, don’t really re-surface until the next day or two after.
On the second day of Eid, married daughters go to visit their own families, spending the day chatting and catching up on family details. When I see them at our home, they glow with joy of all meeting together, something that doesn’t happen very often.
The third day, friends catch up with one another. So I spend much of Tuesday (August 21) at a Gaza cafe, with wireless internet, catching up on world and local news, and being courted by a group of five young girls out on their own to play in the simple play area set-up next to the cafe. They start by whispering shyly and looking over my way, then soon come over to me, hand me a pile of seeds and nibbles, a chocolate cookie and some sweets and tell me the Happy Eid greeting.
They sit with me for half an hour, asking where I am from, curious about my computer and camera. Most kids here are like that: somewhat shy at first but their curiosity always overcomes their initial shyness. These girls, two sets of siblings, chatter away with me, running off to pick flowers for me, and finally set off for the inflatable jumping station, deflated until the power finally came back on.
Before leaving home today for my internet fix, I ask Emad and his father about Eid, Ramadan, the good and the bad. Here is what they had to say,
After 30 days of fasting during Ramadan, Eid is a chance to celebrate with our families, and be grateful for what we have.
On the first day we end up eating a lot of sweets, because every home we visit offers us sweets and ma‘mul (the date cookie). Women bake the cookies at home. It is a point of pride, and they taste better than store-bought cookies. They spend a day baking them, usually while fasting during the last days of Ramadan. But this year many women didn’t have the money to bake them and so chose to buy their ma‘mul from the market: it’s cheaper.
Since we go to visit our sisters on the first day, and I have many sisters all over Gaza, my brothers and I split up into teams in order to have time to visit them all. Eid is hard this year, because we normally bring gifts to each sister and her family: dates, sweets, money, and parents buy new clothes for their children… but the economy and unemployment are so bad that we can't afford to give as we want to [note: most statistics put the unemployment rate at between 35% to 65%, depending on the age group addressed — adults versus men and women in their early 20s; with 1.7 million people, food-aid dependency in the Gaza Strip has soared at 80% for years, a result of the economy and life-shattering complete siege —lock-down on Gaza’s borders — imposed in 2006, after Hamas won democratic, internationally-supervised elections].
Although Eid is a time when everyone should be happy, this year people don’t feel it is a time to celebrate, and are even more depressed than last year, ashamed of not being able to give their loved ones everything they deserve. According to our Islamic values, we should donate money or food to the poor… this is something we should do year-round, but especially during Ramadan and Eid.
In previous years, especially before Israel imposed the siege on us, more people had work, unemployment was less, and banks were not limiting access to our money. So we were able to buy the gifts and clothes and food special to Eid al-Fitr. Even if people have work, their salaries are paid at the end of the month, and this year Eid falls in the middle of the month.
And even people with money in their bank account cannot access most of it. When we go to withdraw money, the banks tell us they have no shekels [Israeli currency, used in occupied Palestine] or US dollars. We have to either take Jordanian dinars or wait. If we accept dinars, we need to change those dinars to shekels in order to use them in Gaza, so we lose value on our money… few people in Gaza can afford to lose any value on their savings. But it is our money; it isn’t that we are begging for hand-outs… we are simply trying to withdraw our own money.
Many of Gaza's poorest people have too much dignity to ask others for help. Yes, there are NGOs that help poor families somewhat, give out iftar meals (breaking fast meals) during Ramadan and even supply some children with new clothes. But those NGOs cannot reach all the people who truly need help, and those who have too much dignity will not ask for help.
Gaza is full of unemployed people, but it isn’t because they don’t want to work. Many used to work in Israel, as construction labourers, taxi drivers, in restaurants and other work. Others used to work in the West Bank, and others in nearby Arab countries. But when Israel closed our borders, Palestinian workers could not leave Gaza to do their jobs. Even more recently, after the so-called “liberation” of Libya, Palestinians who used to live and work there have come back to Gaza and joined the jobless [note: those who worked in factories and in construction in Gaza also lost their jobs since many factories have been forced to close down and construction is virtually non-existent. 95% of factories have shut down or are at minimal production as a result of the Israeli-imposed siege on Gaza, which bans the entrance of most raw materials — including construction materials — and bans all exports, save a token few for media propaganda purposes. Around 700 factories and businesses throughout the Strip were destroyed or rendered unusable in the 2008–2009 Israeli bombardment of Gaza, according to Oxfam].
If Gaza's economy is ever allowed to rise again, a large segment of the younger population will not have the qualifications needed for employment. New university graduates can’t find work, even though they’ve spent the money needed to get a degree. Other poor families, including those former workers, can’t afford to educate their children. Many people have taken loans in order to provide for their families, or to educate their kids. Now they face repaying those loans at the same time as not having an income. It is an impossible situation that is only getting worse every day.
Sure, there are some people in Gaza who have money, who invest in new ventures like cafes, restaurants, etc. But that is a very small percentage of the population (1.7 million). And the vast majority of people cannot afford these cafes or restaurants, so even those with money start losing out since comparatively few people patronize their businesses.
Some people who might have enough money saved or borrowed to start a small business still hesitate, because they know from past experiences that Israel can at any time start bombing Gaza. In an instant their savings, their business, can be obliterated [one example is of two brothers whose businesses have been repeatedly bombed and destroyed by the Zionist regime, the last time during the 2008–2009 Israeli war on Gaza].
Aside from impossible financial worries, in recent years there are other problems that have occurred during Ramadan and Eid. Ramadan is more difficult and unbearable than other months in Gaza, with the half-day or longer power outages [due to inadequate amounts of diesel to fuel Gaza’s sole power plant, and the fact that this plant, bombed by Israel in 2006, has never recovered full capacity production — the Zionist regime has not allowed Palestinians to import the parts needed to repair the plant]. This year’s temperatures soared, breaking records in an already unbearably hot and humid climate. With power cuts, even the simplest luxuries — a fan to cool off by, running water to bathe with — become scarce. Most Palestinian homes in Gaza are simple, bare-bones and functionally-built concrete blocks which retain heat, have no breeze, and are suffocating in warm temperatures.
Although we are always thinking of deceased loved ones, martyred by the Israeli occupation or as a result of the siege, or those who died from natural causes, during special times like Eid al-Fitr we remember them even more. Some people go to visit their loves ones at cemeteries during Eid.
In 2009, shortly after Eid al-Adha [the Eid celebration two months and ten days after Eid al-Fitr], I met Mohammed, 22, a Red Crescent volunteer who at 6 am on the first day of Eid had gone with a few friends to a cemetery east of Gaza’s northern city and camp, Jabaliya, to pay respect to a friend who had been martyred one year earlier during Eid. The cemetery itself is roughly one km from Gaza’s eastern border. Mohammed related how suddenly his group was targeted by a UAV (drone) missile, the shrapnel of which tore into his stomach, back, and legs, breaking one leg in multiple places and embedding dangerously near his spinal cord.
The United Nations reports that since 2008, over 70 patients referred for medical care outside of the Gaza Strip have died due to denied or delayed exit for medical care. Medics in Gaza put the number much higher since 2006, at over 300 siege-related deaths.
Claims of denied medical care are backed by the investigations done by and testimonies given to Physicians for Human Rights – Israel, who say that many Palestinians with medical referrals outside of Gaza are told by Israeli authorities they can either “become collaborators with the Israeli intelligence apparatus or remain in Gaza without medical treatment” (see: “Go back and die in Gaza”).
Emad’s oldest brother was one of the siege’s hundreds of medical martyrs, dying from cancer not treatable in Gaza: the Israeli occupation authorities denied him access to medical care outside of Gaza.
In the past, even in the early years of Israeli occupation of Palestine, children would use their Eid money to buy toys or sweets or clothes. But nowadays, most kids buy toy guns. Why? They suffer from the sounds of Israeli warplanes and war helicopters, from tank shelling, from the Israeli navy shooting and shelling. Most kids have fathers or brothers or other family members who were martyred, brutally, by the Israeli occupation army. So the only games they know are based on their reality: always being bombed or shot at. They play games with toy guns; dressing in military clothes is common (note: children in Gaza suffer from varying degrees of PTSD; the Gaza Community Mental Health Centre has done various studies showing that over 90% of children in Gaza suffer from severe to moderate PTSD).
While it is true that most boys I see around Eid have new toy guns, from a $1 to $10 varieties, depending on their family’s income, kids in Gaza are not filled with hate or being taught propaganda. Growing up under occupation and the barrel of Zionist guns, most boys choose to buy and play with cheap plastic guns, a product not of inherent Palestinian lust for fighting but of their lives since birth being subject to Zionist shooting and bombing, and seeing loved ones kidnapped and killed by the Zionist regime.
Some time after the 23-day, 2008–2009, Israeli bombing of the entire Gaza Strip, a number of Palestinian children in Gaza drew what they experienced during the attacks. This exhibition — A Child’s View from Gaza — later traveled to the UK, the United States, and Canada. The fact that these children then drew, and most children for a long time have drawn, scenes of war and Israeli occupying soldiers shows just how deeply their circumstances are embedded in their psyche. Despite this, children in Gaza are filled with love, imagination, respect for elders, and take care of their younger siblings in a parental, mature manner I hadn’t seen before coming to Palestine.
Having just returned to Gaza via the Rafah crossing, I saw the families desperately trying to get into the Strip before the crossing closed for the holidays. Most spent the better part of a day under the hot sun, no shade, still fasting during Ramadan. I stood with them, sweltering, watching as the tiny gate closed repeatedly in the faces of elderly, women with children, families… It is one of the most depressing crossings I’ve seen and sadly mimics the treatment of Palestinians by Israeli occupation soldiers at military checkpoints throughout the occupied West Bank and Jerusalem (in 2008, I likewise saw and heard tragic stories at the Rafah crossing).
This Eid, yet another problem is the closing of our only possible border crossing, the Rafah border. The Egyptian authorities closed the border just before Eid. Many Palestinians are stuck in Egypt; they’d wanted to come celebrate Eid with their families, and others are from Gaza and were outside of Gaza for study, medical care or work when the border closed. The majority of those who go to Egypt for medical care can’t afford to stay long-term in Egypt; their situation stuck outside of Gaza is very difficult. Likewise, there are Palestinians stuck within Gaza who had come to visit but needed to leave to be home for Eid with their families. Many of these have or will lose their jobs and their plane tickets.