Jerusalem’s Ramadan Is Different This Year

The Muslim holy month began during a dramatic and deadly week in a region where even religious events are shrouded in politics.

Women with an umbrella praying with their hands outstretched
Women pray near the Dome of the Rock in Jerusalem on the first Friday of Ramadan.  (Ammar Awad / Reuters)

JERUSALEM—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 sunrise 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.)

Nearly everyone I spoke with in Ramallah and Jerusalem said they were praying for the people who died and were injured during the Gaza protests. “It’s a tragic opening of Ramadan, really,” said Hammad. According to the Palestinian Health Ministry in Gaza, roughly 2,700 people were injured on Monday and Tuesday, in addition to the 62 killed. “Ramadan should be a celebration—a month of peace and a month of tranquility for all Muslims around the world. … Opening Ramadan like that is just terrible.” Like many other people I spoke with, he said he’s felt spiritually distracted by the news. “You need some patience during Ramadan,” he said. “Experiences like the ones in Gaza yesterday just affect your emotions.”

Even though many Palestinians are clearly angry about what they see as an Israeli abuse of power in Gaza, Jerusalem and the West Bank have been fairly calm this week. The protest in Ramallah on Tuesday drew only a couple hundred people, some of whom appeared to be European tourists eagerly waving their Palestinian flags in solidarity. Like in other Palestinian cities and villages, most businesses and public institutions were on strike all day to protest the nakba. The shuttered city felt relaxed, rather than poised for conflict. Men sat around talking and smoking on street corners, while most people stayed home.

The lack of demonstrations in the areas closest to Jerusalem undermines the narrative that Trump’s embassy move was the primary cause of the chaos in Gaza. The long-term conditions there—lack of clean water and electricity, an unstable banking system, widespread unemployment, restricted movement—are the main undercurrent that swept the protests along. Hamas also actively encouraged people to head to the border, including women and children. In other Palestinian territories—where the economic situation is less dire and which are not controlled by Hamas, which the U.S. and others consider a terrorist organizationpeople’s anger seemed to seethe rather than boil over. As one young woman told me, revolutions in places like Ramallah are always temporary.

So a dramatic and painful week has come to an end. But despite the death and destruction, despite the monumental symbolism of the embassy move, many other things remain the same. Ramadan began. Palestinian Muslims got their permits and caught their buses. For a few weeks, at least, people from Ramallah and Hebron and Jerusalem will all be able to pray and eat together, to enjoy the little boys spraying water on their sticky faces as they file out of Al-Aqsa. They’ll come every week until they can’t anymore, and pray that an unchanging situation will change. Salaam Abu Saleem, a high-schooler from Nablus, says she will be in Jerusalem every Friday. “I come here,” she said, “to say to God that we are afraid.”