Coronavirus imposes different reality for Palestinians during Ramadan

Authorities in Gaza and the West Bank face big challenges trying to stanch the spread of the novel coronavirus during Ramadan, which usually involves social visits and group prayers.

al-monitor A Palestinian man prays inside a mosque on the second Friday of Ramadan as prayers are suspended due to concerns about the spread of the coronavirus disease (COVID-19) in Gaza City May 1, 2020.  Photo by REUTERS/Mohammed Salem.

May 11, 2020

GAZA CITY, Gaza Strip — Despite some easing of the restrictions imposed to contain the novel coronavirus outbreak in Gaza and the West Bank, mosques will remain closed and public gatherings banned during the Islamic holy month of Ramadan, which lasts from April 24 to May 23. The Palestinian Authority (PA) announced the closure of all West Bank mosques on March 17, and Hamas followed suit in Gaza on March 24, and the two governments had previously announced the closure of all halls and public markets earlier in March.

During an April 24 press conference in Ramallah, PA spokesman Ibrahim Melhem stressed the need for residents to perform their Ramadan religious and social rites at home. Although visits to relatives and iftars (breaking of the daily fast) are the norm during Ramadan, he noted that doing so this year threatened to broaden the spread of COVID-19. Melhem stressed that the government is counting on citizen awareness of the relevant restrictions and everyone abiding by them.

On April 22 in an interview with Al-Aqsa TV, Iyad al-Bazm, spokesman for the Interior Ministry in Gaza, emphasized how COVID-19 has necessitated implementing certain measures that have changed the atmosphere surrounding Ramadan and its customs. He expressed the hope that people will understand and cooperate with the competent authorities, as both are much needed. Bazm added that the police will be monitoring places where people are expected to gather, such as shops and restaurants, to prevent overcrowding and to enforce health safety measures.

Al-Monitor tried to contact Louay Zureikat, police spokesman on the West Bank, to inquire about police plans for Ramadan but got no response. 

On April 26, the Economy Ministry in Gaza announced the reopening of restaurants in cases where social distancing can be ensured and employees take the necessary measures to avoid the possible spread of the coronavirus.

Bazm had said in his TV interview that with the start of Ramadan, which began April 24, all workers must observe the safety and preventative measures issued by the Interior Ministry and shops must provide masks and sanitizer for customers in malls and commercial centers.

The Gaza and West Bank governing authorities face considerable challenges as they try to stem the spread of the coronavirus during Ramadan. As of May 10, the number of infected people in Palestine Stands 547, including 20 in Gaza.

Ashraf al-Qidra, a spokesman for the Health Ministry in Gaza, told Al-Monitor that the first two coronavirus infections in the enclave had been confirmed on March 22. For Ramadan, the ministry launched a campaign under the banner “Stay at Home.” If residents want to go out for necessities, he said, they have to wear masks and respect social distancing as much as possible. Regular hand washing is also advised. 

“Breaching these rules puts the entire society at risk,” Qidra said. “If the measures are violated, it could have severe consequences, as Gaza has [one of] the highest population densities in the world.”

He remarked that Ramadan will be better for everyone if everybody abides by the suggested preventive measures. He added that his ministry's Health Education Department is working around the clock in partnership with several media outlets to educate residents through public service announcements and broadcast interviews.

Qidra called on Gazans to forgo big family banquets this Ramadan, adding, “The epidemic could affect anyone. There may be people carrying the virus without them showing any symptoms.”

Ali Hawas, a Gaza City resident, remarked to Al-Monitor on how this Ramadan is completely different for him and his family, noting that the customary feasts will be limited to first-degree relatives, without friends, neighbors and colleagues as usual. “There is nothing wrong with visiting our relatives so long as we take the necessary preventive measures,” he said, since a full lockdown has not been imposed.

Instead of praying in mosques, Hawas said, his family has allocated a room in their house for praying. “The most difficult part of Ramadan this year is being deprived of the Tarawih prayers at the mosque. These prayers add a lot of charm to Ramadan.” Tarawih are nightly group prayers held only during the month of Ramadan.

Amal Saleh from Jenin, on the West Bank, told Al-Monitor that her family usually relies on ready-made food during Ramadan, but not this year.

“As a precautionary measure, we have decided to prepare our food at home and abstain from buying any ready-made food,” she said. In addition, her family has decided to send iftar meals to their relatives instead of inviting them over. They too have designated a corner in the house for group prayers instead of going to the mosque.

Alaa al-Barghouthi, who lives in Ramallah, explained that her five uncles live in the same building and have dedicated an outdoor area for praying together while observing the recommended safety measures.

As for herself, “Instead of going out to the market and breaking my fast in restaurants, I will be spending my time reading, watching TV and learning some culinary arts,” she added.

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