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Scenes of the destruction suffered by the Al-Masry Tower, which consists of more than 10 floors and contains hundreds of displaced families in the besieged Gaza City (Emad El Byed via Unsplash)

In Gaza, Palestinians Try to Celebrate Ramadan Amid Israeli War

… even as the bombs continue to rain down.

Words: Mohammed Ali*
Pictures: Emad El Byed

Under the veil of night in Rafah, at the southern edge of the Gaza Strip, a table illuminates the darkness, a beacon of festivity in a landscape otherwise dimmed by conflict. Mohammed al-Najjar, the man behind this small table of lights, carefully arranges his wares — lanterns that flicker like stars against the backdrop of an inky sky, punctuated by the occasional string of decorative lights. Behind him, a blanket hangs, silently marking the arrival of Ramadan in a city that has known too much silence of late.

As people meander through the streets, their shadows elongating in the lanterns’ glow, they pause at al-Najjar’s table, their curiosity piqued not just by the beauty of the items on display but by the prices that tag along with them. “The atmosphere of Ramadan this year is different from the rest of the world,” al-Najjar explains,  a mixture of both resignation and defiance in his voice. Where last year the air buzzed with anticipation, this year, the war casts a long shadow over the holy month.

The war erupted on Oct. 7 after Hamas-led militants carried out an incursion into southern Israel. In the five months since, it has escalated into a devastating air and ground offensive by Israel. Israeli authorities report approximately 1,200 people killed in the initial attacks, with more than 250 taken hostage. But in Gaza, the health ministry says the war has killed more than 31,000 Palestinians and left over 73,000 injured. Of the total number of casualties, 72% are women and children. (The ministry does not specify the number of combatants among the casualties.)

“This Year, We Live in War”

In the past, al-Najjar says, Ramadan filled his days with the joyful chaos of sales and exchanging lanterns for smiles. “But this year, we live in war,” he says.

The war has now thinned the crowds and reduced the laughter to whispers — yet, here he stands, selling a few lanterns a day, clinging to the vestiges of tradition and joy.

From his shop in Gaza City to a makeshift stall on the streets of Rafah, al-Najjar’s journey mirrors that of many in Gaza — displaced yet determined. “From the owner of a shop to a stall in the street, this war has wronged many people and [has] wronged me,” he reflects, his stall a testament to resilience in the face of adversity.

In Rafah, where displacement has crowded together those fleeing the worst of the violence, al-Najjar’s efforts to kindle joy are particularly poignant. “I tried to make the children and displaced people in Rafah happy and put a smile on their faces, but we are bereaved and displaced,” he adds.

“Unlike Any Previous War”

Majdoleen Haitham, a 24-year-old from Gaza City, also fled as the war intensified. “It was unlike any other previous war,” she says. “The beginning of it was utterly terrifying.”

Her family initially found refuge in Qarara, north of Khan Younis, where they stayed at her father’s workplace. But their displacement was far from over. As Israeli operations escalated, they sought shelter at the Al-Aqsa University campus, only to move again, this time to a rented room in eastern Rafah.

Haitham’s family, now eight people, has settled in a room within an apartment in east Rafah, paying $200 for a space that, before the war, could have secured an entire apartment. Living under the same roof as several displaced families, Haitham reflects on a Ramadan transformed by conflict. “Last Ramadan, I used to go with my father to the Zawiya market to get Ramadan supplies, decorations, and lanterns. Our house was full of life,” she recalls. “But the war is ongoing, everything in Ramadan feels tasteless.”

It was unlike any other previous war.

– Majdoleen Haitham

Isolation, despair, and the haunting fear of a conflict with no foreseeable end have replaced the communal joy and traditions that once defined her family’s Ramadan celebrations: hosting neighbors and loved ones, sharing in prayer together, Qatayef, and moments of togetherness.

As thousands of displaced families like Haitham’s depend on the UN’s canned food distributions, the rich tapestry of Ramadan’s culinary traditions has faded into necessity and scarcity. Haitham says her family’s Ramadan feasts once included full tables, but now their iftar is limited to leftovers and overpriced mulukhiyah, a traditional dish they can no longer find meat to put in.

“I Will Miss Her”

Elsewhere in the besieged coastal enclave, Siwar Baroud and her family chose to remain in Gaza’s valley. They knew that nowhere in Gaza is safe. Baroud, 23, saw the war shatter her dreams of becoming a dentist. She had to put aside years of study, a decision that has left her future as fragmented as the city falling down around her.

This year’s Ramadan has arrived as a somber reminder of loss. The violence has killed six members of Baroud’s family, including her grandmother, Umm Atta. Her grandmother had lived through the Nakba, the 1948 ethnic cleansing that led to Israel’s establishment, only to perish in the current war. “I will miss her,” she says. “I will miss the cup of coffee I used to drink with her while hearing her stories.”

I will miss the cup of coffee I used to drink with her while hearing her stories.

– Siwar Baroud

Despite the hardship, Baroud was clinging to the hope that Ramadan might still offer moments of solace and togetherness. “We lived by the hope that Ramadan’s arrival will carry with it the calmness — to gather with those left from the family and hug each other.” 

In the past, Baroud’s family would gather at her grandmother’s house, where lights and lanterns created a festive scene. These gatherings were like potlucks, and each family member brought a dish.

But continued violence has shattered Baroud’s hopes for the holy month. Israel and Hamas failed to reach a ceasefire ahead of Monday, the first day of Ramadan in Palestine.

“You May Close Your Ears” 

Children played with crackers and lanterns, their laughter and excitement filling the air, a testament to the spirit of Ramadan that transcends generations. Siwar nostalgically remembers how even their neighbors would join in the festive spirit, although with gentle teasing about the noise of their merriment. “It’s a happy night [because] we’re gathered,” her grandmother would say. “You may close your ears.”

Baroud laments the transformation of Ramadan into a period of despair. “How does this Ramadan arrive while we’re denied warmth and suffering displacement?” she questions, grappling with the reality of celebrating amid displacement. She recounts the joyous gatherings at her grandmother’s house, where the air was thick with the scent of Qatayef and the sound of laughter. “Our house was full of life,” she said.

Now, scattered and seeking refuge, Baroud and her family find themselves navigating a Ramadan where happiness is a fleeting, elusive guest. “This Ramadan, we’re displaced and separated from one another. It’s a moment of happiness when the connection is good to call and check if we’re still alive.”

“Everything Is Missing”

The war has also impacted the religious lives of the people surviving it. The Gaza media office has released information detailing the significant impact Israeli airstrikes have had on the region’s religious infrastructure and community. According to the report, the fighting has damaged more than 500 mosques, completely destroying 220 and partially damaging another 290. 

Furthermore, the Ministry of Religious Affairs in Gaza reported earlier in January that more than 100 preachers had lost their lives due to the conflict. This loss deeply affects Gaza’s religious spirit and the broader cultural and community fabric of the area: amid the violence, not even houses of worship or the religious figures who lead them are safe.

The World Health Organization has warned that a looming health crisis and widespread hunger are compounding an already dire situation. The threat of starvation and disease looms large, with the northern regions of Gaza, home to some 300,000 people, facing a near-total collapse in aid deliveries this year. However, a glimmer of hope emerged on Tuesday when the World Food Program announced its first successful food delivery to Gaza City since Feb. 20, providing aid to some 25,000 people.

For her part, as Baroud recounts her experience, the sudden roar of a bombing interrupts. “This is our Ramadan, as you can hear,” she whispers. “I feel something is missing all the time. However, in reality, everything is missing.”

Mohammed Ali*

*Mohammed Ali is a journalist working in Gaza.

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