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Israeli-Arabs adapt Eid al-Fitr celebrations to new coronavirus reality

Israeli-Arabs are adapting to the new coronavirus reality, where mosques are open but restrictions remain in place.

As the holy month of Ramadan came to an end, the Muslim world welcomed Eid al-Fitr May 24 with mixed feelings. On the one hand, it marked the end of a month of fasting with all the joy of a holiday. On the other hand, this was an unusual celebration, given all the restrictions imposed because of the coronavirus pandemic. It started with Eid al-Fitr prayers, which were certainly different this year. These were followed by a more somber holiday, without any festivals or celebrations. Many people spent the holiday at home with their immediate family, instead of flying overseas, like so many people used to do in the past.

The Israeli government decided to open houses of worship, including mosques, as early as May 20, after they had been closed for a long time. Nevertheless, there are still many restrictions in place. For instance, worshippers are required to wear masks, and no more than 50 worshippers are allowed in a prayer space.

Shortly before Laylat al-Qadr — the holiest night of Ramadan — the imam at Al-Sirat mosque in Baqa al-Gharbiyye in Haifa district, Bassam Abu Mukh, told Al-Monitor, “We plan to follow the instructions closely, even during holiday prayers. There will be no more than 50 worshippers in each of the mosque’s courtyards, and if that is not enough space, then worshippers will also be able to pray in the courtyard outside.”

After an oddly subdued Ramadan, with Saudi Arabia suspending the traditional Umrah pilgrimage so as to prevent the spread of the virus that causes COVID-19, Israel’s Muslim community had to come to terms with the fact that this Eid al-Fitr was also going to be quiet and subdued. In the past, Muslims celebrated the holiday by preparing special cookies, visiting relatives, taking part in large family meals, trips to hotels in Israel and overseas, dining out, and so on. This year, they spent the holiday with their immediate family at home. Special meals and visits were kept to a minimum in order to follow as closely as possible the instructions laid out by the government, and particularly the Ministry of Health, to minimize interactions with strangers.

Sherein Abu Asaad from Nazareth, who coordinates formation programs at the Arab employment assistance center, told Al-Monitor, “There is no doubt that the coronavirus outbreak has impacted our lives at home and at work. So, for instance, I started working from home and hold all my work meetings via Zoom. We spent the month of Ramadan at home, because I was really worried about the health of my children and the rest of my family, not to mention my own well-being. We also decided to have a quiet Eid al-Fitr this year. We bought the children new clothes for the holiday to cheer them up. This was the first time we spent it at home instead of going for a vacation overseas or visiting family like we did in the past. There is just one reason for all of this: We want to stay healthy. There is no doubt that the mood was very different this holiday.”

Still, others preferred to see the glass half full — people who took advantage of the holiday to connect with their traditions and roots, and to visit places across the country that represent Arab heritage.

“Obviously, once all the festivals and ceremonies that set the holiday mood became impossible, we were deprived of the collective joy that we are used to experiencing. Everything was happening within the confines of our home,” Sami Ali, spokesman for the Fisherman’s Union of Jisr az-Zarqa, told Al-Monitor. “Still, I would prefer to view the situation positively, rather than negatively. We held prayer sessions in the mosque in accordance with all the preventive measures once the mosques reopened after a very long time. I suggest that people take advantage of the situation to hike and to visit the archaeological and historical sites across the country that represent Arab heritage. These include the deserted Arab villages or Jisr az-Zarqa, the only Arab town along the coast. It is a chance to visit the fishing village there, which is a popular attraction for Jews and Arabs alike."

While Ali and others tried keeping their spirits up despite all the hurdles, the Health Ministry’s plans to reopen restaurants, bars and clubs on May 27 has caused disappointemnt. It is rather obvious that this is no random date. After the country was on lockdown during the Jewish festival of Passover and the Christian holiday of Easter, it looks like the Israeli government and the Ministry of Health would prefer to avoid the crowds rushing to restaurants or other public places during Eid al-Fitr. The holiday is scheduled to end on May 26, so the decision was made to open the restaurants and cafes one day after that.

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