RAMALLAH - Palestinians are torn between being happy that many have received permits to visit Jerusalem and Israel during the holy Islamic month of Ramadan, and being concerned for the West Bank shops that will lose a great deal of business to stores in Israel.
Ramadan is considered the holiest month in the Islamic calendar. Religious Muslims all over the world fast from sunrise to sunset. At the end of the month, Muslims celebrate Eid Al Fitr in which they visit relatives or take a few days off to travel.
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On a recent morning, dozens of people were gathered in the Ramallah Liaison office to collect their Israeli permits. Palestinians are not allowed to enter Israel without a special permit. During Ramadan, Israel significantly eases restrictions to allow Muslims to visit Jerusalem to pray at the Al-Aqsa mosque, one of the holiest sites for Muslims. Israel has already issued 10,000 permits for Palestinians and the number is expected to grow.
While in Jerusalem, many Palestinians will make the 45-minute drive to the beach in Tel Aviv, or visit Israel’s amusement parks and tourist attractions.
“These numbers would have been multiplied by 10 if we didn’t send out the permits to the local municipalities.” Ghassan Safi, the head of the Liaison office in Ramallah told The Media Line. Due to the large numbers of permits granted in Ramadan, the liaison offices started sending out the permits to the local municipalities in order to ease the pressure.
“My husband and I got a permit for a month, but my son was denied one. We will try to apply again for him. I hope there is still time,” Salma Assi, a 37-year-old employee in a Palestinian company told The Media Line. On Fridays in Ramadan all women and men over 60 years old, are allowed into Jerusalem without a permit.
Assi said that she will go to the Al-Aqsa mosque to pray and to the mixed Arab-Jewish city of Jaffa to enjoy the beach at night.
Jamal Diab a 25-year-old Palestinian Authority (PA) employee only received a permit for 4 days.
“I followed up with them (the Israeli authorities) and asked to have a permit for 30 days”, Diab told The Media Line. Diab can’t wait to go to the beach with his wife if both of them are granted a permit for the end of Ramadan.
These trips to Israel may be spiritually significant and fun, but they are also costly. Between transportation, entry fees, and food, a one-day trip can cost a family several hundred dollars. Diab says he will bring food from home and only buy drinks and juice in Israel, hoping to keep the tab under $100 for the day.
He might go shopping as well, “I heard that Israeli shops granted special discounts for West Bankers last year and I want to use them,” Diab said.
Mohammed Etewi, a 40-year-old driver, received a permit this year to visit Jerusalem for the first time in 12 years. Along with his wife and daughter he came to pray at the Al-Aqsa mosque.
“The atmosphere is really amazing; we stayed until it was time to break the fast and ate with the rest of people. We really enjoyed it”, Etewi told The Media Line.
Etewi works for the PA, and earns about $600 each month. He says he wanted to go to the beach, but didn’t because he couldn’t afford it. His trip to the mosque cost about $60 for transportation and a few souvenirs.
“The prices are expensive in Jerusalem, so I only bought ka’ek (a round bread topped with sesame seeds) and falafel, along with some decorations from Ramadan and a few toys to my other kids at home”, Etewi told The Media Line.
Beyond the cost, some Palestinian activists say that Palestinians should be spending their money locally, not inside Israel.
“Last year around this time, we all read about the money that was spent by Palestinians when they got permits and visited areas inside Israel,” Hala Shoabi told The Media Line. “This year, we decided to do something about it.”
A group of Palestinians from Ramallah and Jerusalem, along with Arab citizens of Israel from Haifa, Nazareth, Jaffa, and Acre have planned an awareness campaign to encourage Palestinians to buy from only Arab-owned shops. They are compiling a list of shops, restaurants and coffee-shops in Israel owned by Arab citizens of Israel.
A group member told The Media Line that they believe that Israel profits from the permits economically.
”The economy in the West Bank is very restricted and Israel decides what it allows into our markets,” Shoabi said. “With such a strong Israeli market and economy, it is already hard for our market to compete. So the least we can do is not help Israelis further especially in the holy month of Ramadan”, Shoaibi told The Media Line.
However, Safi from the liason office believes that Israel’s first priority is security,
“Tourist and economic goals might follow, but if there was a problem in one permit, Israel will not ease the process of giving permits. Last year, the situation was much calmer than it is today,” Safi explained.
Palestinian merchants say the permits are taking away their livelihood. Elias Rishmawi, a clothes shop owner in Bethlehem says many Palestinians buy their holiday clothes in Israel, rather than in Bethlehem.
“We wait for these high seasons when people shop for their festivities. However, Israel takes all of our profit by these permits”, Rishmawi said.
Nevertheless, Palestinian officials say they will never interfere with people’s wishes to go to Jerusalem.
“Our policy in the Civil Administration is to ease the burden caused by (Israeli) occupation. We will never put checkpoints to prevent people from going to Jerusalem just to help merchants make profit,” Safi said. “We help merchants by trying to ease the restrictions imposed on them and not by rejecting people’s right to obtain a permit.”
The activists have launched a campaign on Facebook asking Palestinians not to buy Israeli products. A widely shared photo on Facebook reads, “I have a permit but will not buy Israeli products”, another reads “boycott your occupation”.
However, others insist that they want to use the permit to shop. Omar Hassan, a 27-year-old university employee says that shopping in Israel is more cost-effective, as the goods are better-quality.
“You pay a bit more money for clothing but you can still use it for a long period on time. Don’t tell me to support the national product, tell our merchants to have mercy on us,” Hassan said.
The activists encouraged the listed merchants to offer discounts to Palestinians, “We are aware people search for the cheapest prices that sometimes are offered by the bigger chains in Israeli markets, but hopefully people will try to avoid buying from Israeli stores,” Shoaibi added.
Article written by Diana Atallah
Reprinted with permission from The Media Line
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