Ramadan brings fresh fears of escalation on both Gaza Strip and West Bank

Posted on: 13 March 2024

Ramadan brings fresh fears of escalation on both Gaza Strip and West Bank

Ramadan has begun, but the 2 million or so inhabitants of the Gaza Strip will have little choice about whether they can observe the customary daylight fasting during the month-long festival. The continuing blockade of the 141 square mile enclave has reportedly reduced some people to eating cattle feed, and there remains the dire prospect of widespread famine if there isn’t a massive and rapid increase in the volume of aid getting to people.

A sea corridor has been opened between Cyprus and Gaza and the first shipments of aid are arriving from Europe. But it’s thought that it will be difficult to get a sufficient amount of food, fuel and medicine in by sea.

Meanwhile, negotiations between Israel and Hamas have come to a grinding halt. Both sides have accused each other of hindering the talks, which were meant to secure the release of Israeli hostages in exchange for Palestinian prisoners.

Last month Benny Gantz, a member of Israel’s war cabinet, said the Israel Defense Forces (IDF) would begin a ground offensive in Rafah, southern Gaza, to coincide with the start of Ramadan. This varies depending on where you are in the Islamic world and depends on the appearance of the early crescent moon. So while authorities in Saudi Arabia reported a sighting on Sunday March 10, other countries, including Iran, reported seeing the crescent moon a day later.

The idea of a major Israeli offensive timed to coincide with Islam’s most important festival has drawn criticism from around the world. It “adds a layer of distastefulness and outrage to an already pretty horrendous situation,” Khaled Elgindy, director of the Middle East Institute’s program on Palestine, told Foreign Policy. “It adds more pressure on Arab governments to at least look like they’re doing something,” he added.

Ramadan is a central event in the Islamic holy calendar, commemorating Muhammad’s first revelation of what would later become the Qur'an. A duality of emotions characterises the month-long festival.

On the one hand, Ramadan is a joyous religious holiday when Muslim friends and families celebrate by sharing large meals and exchanging presents. On the other, it is a time of profound spiritual communion with Allah and the Muslim Ummah (community). It is marked by disciplined fasting, intense study of the Qur'an and prayer, accompanied by acts of charity towards less fortunate Muslims facing hardship.

A major military offensive would be a serious provocation to Muslims across the world. It could trigger a new wave of anti-Israeli demonstrations, and completely derail the Arab-Israeli normalisation process that began with the signing of the Abraham Accords in September 2020.

If it goes ahead, an Israeli assault on Rafah – where more than a million Palestinians have fled to escape the violence – could play into the hands of those in Hamas’s leadership, including the group’s leader in Gaza, Yahyah Sinwar, who said in February that international pressure would force Israel to end the war. The death toll, according to the Gaza health ministry, has topped 31,000 with nearly 73,000 more people injured.

West Bank

Reports from the Old City of Jerusalem, meanwhile, describe how the usual festivities that take place on Ramadan’s eve were replaced by feelings of sadness over the situation in Gaza and apprehension about the future of the Palestinian people. Instead of being bustling with activity, the narrow alleys of the Old City were almost empty, with many local shops closed. The traditional lights and decorations were not in evidence.

There is apprehension, too, that al-Aqsa mosque on what Jews call the Temple Mount could become a significant flashpoint for further disturbances, which could quickly spiral out of control. According to Surah 17 in the Qur'an, Muhammad ascended to heaven from the site of Al-Aqsa after his miraculous night journey from Mecca. The holy site is traditionally visited by tens of thousands of Muslim pilgrims each day as part of their Ramadan celebrations.

Israel’s national security minister, Itamar Ben-Gvir – a far-right ideologue on whom Netanyahu depends to hold on to his majority in the Knesset – proposed a blanket ban on “Palestinian authority residents” from accessing the site during Ramadan. But the war cabinet has ruled this out. Instead the Coordinator of Government Activities in the Territories (COGAT) has ruled that men over the age of 55, women over 50, and children up to the age of ten will be allowed access.

Restrictions on worshippers visiting the holy site could be particularly problematic during the last ten days of Ramadan when Muslims sleep inside the mosque and rise early for morning prayers.

It is still uncertain whether the delicate calm at al-Aqsa will persist throughout the upcoming month. On March 10, despite Netanyahu’s assurances that there would be no restrictions, the Israeli security forces prevented many young Palestinians from entering the mosque for Ramadan’s opening prayer.

That instantly resulted in scuffles at one of the shrine’s entrances, with Israeli officers using batons on the Palestinian crowd. The situation in the days ahead may become far more challenging as thousands of Muslims are expected at Al-Aqsa for Friday prayers.

A new IDF campaign in overcrowded Rafah, a drastic curtailment of Muslim worship rights at al-Aqsa or an excessive use of violence by the Israeli police in the Old City of Jerusalem could be all it takes to ultimately ignite the fuse and set the whole region on fire.The Conversation

Carlo Aldrovandi, Assistant Professor in International Peace Studies, Trinity College Dublin

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

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