BETAR, West Bank, Nov. 27 (AP)--Lugging 15 pounds of aromatic pancakes across a dusty trail, Hassan Buttma headed to his West Bank village for what should have been a celebratory sundown feast marking the start of the Muslim holy month of Ramadan.

But Buttma, father of 11 and grandfather of 40, lamented the two months of Mideast upheaval that in some way has touched most every Palestinian family, including his own.

His nephew was shot in the leg by Israeli troops and is recuperating in a German hospital. A son and several in-laws have lost jobs due to the turmoil. His youngest daughter may be unable to complete her final year of high school on time because her school has been closed. Buttma's planned trip to visit two sons in California is now on indefinite hold.

"Ramadan means meals with the whole family, spending time with your friends, helping the poor," said Buttma, a 62-year-old retiree. "But this is not a normal Ramadan. It is the saddest one I can remember."

The violence and its fallout has made normal life almost impossible for most Palestinians. Israel has sealed off the entire West Bank and Gaza Strip, keeping out virtually all of the 150,000 Palestinians who previously traveled to Israel each day, mostly to work.

In the past week, Israel has tightened the clampdown, preventing Palestinians from leaving their towns and villages.

The embargo has undermined an already feeble Palestinian economy, and the financial pain is particularly acute during Ramadan, when huge meals for family and friends are offered each evening just after sundown, breaking the dawn-to-dusk fast.

Parents also lavish gifts and new clothes on their children during the Eid holiday that follows, but many are hard-pressed to provide decent meals, let alone presents.

"I cannot even feed my family," said Azaan Mousabed, a father of three in the West Bank city of Hebron, where 30,000 Palestinians have effectively been under house arrest for two months in a bid to prevent clashes with 400 Jewish settlers. Mousabed's family, like many others that are self-sufficient in normal times, is now dependent on flour and rice provided by an Islamic charity.

Ramadan is celebrated as the period when the Qur'an, the Muslim holy book, was revealed to the Prophet Muhammad nearly 1,400 years ago. Observant Muslims abstain from eating, drinking, smoking and sex during daylight hours.

The Israeli closure has also kept most Palestinians from the Haram al-Sharif, the mosque compound in east Jerusalem where the violence first erupted at the end of September following a visit by right-wing Israeli politician Ariel Sharon. The compound is also the most sacred site in Judaism, which Jews call the Temple Mount.

Muslim clerics demanded Monday that Israel lift the closure and allow all worshippers--not just those over 45--to pray at the compound, the third holiest site in Islam.

"During recent years, more than 300,000 worshippers were inside the mosque [compound], and nothing happened," said Ikrema Sabri, the Muslim mufti, or spiritual leader, of Jerusalem.

The autumn sun generated a blinding reflection from the golden Dome of the Rock at the center of the compound, as an estimated 7,000 to 8,000 worshippers gathered for midday prayers.

The crowd was larger than on a typical weekday, but much smaller than usual for first day of Ramadan, said Akram Sanduka, a regular at the mosque.

"Last year, when I came on the first day of Ramadan, it was packed," he said. "Today it's quiet because of the Israeli restrictions, the siege, and the transportation problems."

Israel has said that the violence must first subside before it will consider lifting the tight restraints. A series of car bombings and roadside shooting ambushes by Palestinians targeting Israeli soldiers and civilians has prompted Israeli to intensify the clampdown in recent days.

Back in the rocky hills of Betar, the nearby Jerusalem skyline has turned pink in the late afternoon sun. Despite the short distance, Buttma had to take a series of taxis, interspersed with long walks between Arab villages, to get around a series of Israeli roadblocks on his way to Jerusalem and back.

He ran errands for his clan and picked up bread and sweets, including Arab pancakes, to be served as dessert for the 40 relatives descending on his two-story stone home Monday night.

"It's very difficult for me to travel to the nearby village where my mother lives," he said, noting that such tight restrictions were never imposed during the previous Palestinian uprising, from 1987-93. "This time the Israelis are separating villages, separating families."

Join the Discussion
comments powered by Disqus