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Gaza life lightens up for Ramadan as lockdown eases with epidemic at bay

Workers make Ramadan sweets Wednesday in Galaa Street in Gaza City. Some coronavirus-related restrictions have been relaxed for the holy month’s duration. (Loay Ayyoub for The Washington Post)
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GAZA CITY — For Muhammad al-Mabhouh, Ramadan has brought a bit of sweet relief. After two months without pay during the coronavirus shutdown, the 28-year-old was finally called back to his job making qatayef, the sugary pancakes filled with nuts or cheese that are a Ramadan tradition.

“I was waiting impatiently because I knew that the qatayef season would bring me back to work,” said Mabhouh, who depends on the $8 a day he makes at a bakery to support his wife and two children.

Ramadan, Islam’s month-long period of daytime fasts and nighttime feasts, has lent a meager measure of normality to an abnormal spring in the Gaza Strip. For residents who know they will struggle for months with the economic upheaval that the pandemic has already brought, the holiday has meant a glimpse of easier living and the cautious hope that protective measures are working.

While not sounding the all-clear, officials have loosened some of the restrictions for at least the duration of Ramadan. Restaurants were allowed to open partially, and shops that sell Ramadan sweets and treats have seen customers, many in masks, return for the first time in weeks.

Few families are willing to risk the usual mass gatherings each evening for their first meal of the day — and with unemployment now well over 50 percent, many cannot afford it — but holiday workarounds are common. Some pay social visits in small groups throughout the day rather than attend large iftar feasts at night. Others play host by having takeout iftar delivered, their treat, to family and friends.

“With Ramadan, activity has returned,” said Mabhouh. “Palestinians cannot do without Ramadan.”

Health officials warned that the danger of a major epidemic is far from over in the impoverished, densely packed enclave that is home to almost 2 million people, many of them refugees. Officials from the ruling Hamas militant group, international organizations and the Israeli government, which maintains a strict blockade of Gaza, have all warned that an uncontrolled outbreak would overwhelm the strip’s fragile health system.

But to date, just 17 coronavirus cases have been reported in Gaza, which officials attribute to strict business closures and quarantine rules that the government instituted in early March. The measures included a requirement that travelers returning to Gaza must spend 21 days in isolation centers, where more than 4,500 of them were tested for the virus.

“It really is proof that containment works,” said Gerald Rockenschaub, who runs World Health Organization operations for Gaza and the West Bank from Jerusalem.

Given that success so far, Rockenschaub had no objection to easing some of the restrictions on movement and business activity as long as the loosening came with strong warnings to continue physical distancing, hand-washing and other personal protective measures.

For many Gazans, Ramadan has meant some respite from the long slog. But if the bustle of Ramadan has made life feel a little more ordinary, it is far from a regular Ramadan. Celebrating pandemic-style has meant curtailing the usual social outpouring and instead contending with a devastated economy.

“This year my husband Mazen and I decided not to receive guests as was the custom every year,” said Mayssa al-Masry, 41.

Instead, the couple have been visiting family by day and celebrating alone at night with their five children. That suits their sense of safety as well as their budget, which shrank dramatically when Masry lost her job as a project coordinator for a local nonprofit that shut down during the outbreak.

“We are in lockdown, under siege, and now I have no income because I lost my job,” Masry said.

The Palestinian Ministry of Health eased its restrictions on restaurants Sunday, allowing them to seat customers if they remained appropriately spaced apart. That has returned a faint pulse to Gaza’s normally busy nightlife, but business remains far below the usual evening rush.

Spacing hasn’t been a problem with the five or so customers a night willing to venture out so far, said Emad al-Rayyes, manager of the Lighthouse Restaurant.

“It is really hard for me to see the place empty without people,” Rayyes said. “I feel bad for the workers.”

Flower growers who now would normally be cutting their roses and carnations for hotel lobbies and banquet halls across Europe and the Middle East are instead feeding them to goats.

“We were awaiting the arrival of the spring and summer season,” said Lubbad Hejazi, 20, whose family owns a three-acre flower farm near the city of Rafah. “But there is no longer any demand for flowers except in scarce quantities and at cheap prices. So they have become livestock feed and landfill waste.”

At least one industry has stirred to life during the pandemic. Gaza’s once-thriving textile factories have been repurposed to meet the booming need for masks and protective gear around the region. Gaza workshops have pumped out some 10,000 protective suits and 5 million masks in recent weeks, according to the Israeli advocacy group Gisha. Most are exported to the West Bank and Israel. Others supply Gaza’s own health-care system.

Hassan Shehada owns a sewing factory, which saw its clothing contracts evaporate when shops in Israel closed in March. He switched to medical masks three weeks ago and is hustling to keep raw materials on hand to meet demand.

Shehada, 56, is celebrating Ramadan with his factories busy and his family enjoying a bit of modified freedom for the holiday. But he knows it is only a glimpse of what it will take to pull Gaza out of its problems, both emerging and entrenched.

“What Gaza needs is work,” he said. “This pandemic may end, but the Gaza Strip crisis will not end with it.”

Hendrix reported from Jerusalem.

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