Work Permits and Ramadan in the West Bank

HIRBET DEIR, Occupied West Bank – For Muhammad el-Baradiyeh, 38, the Muslim holy month of Ramadan is always a blessing.

In fact, every day of the month-and-a-half prior to Ramadan has been good for Muhammad. Thanks to a permit granted by the Israeli authorities, he’s been able to work inside Israel and save extra money he’ll need for the holiday.

Not that life is ever simple for Muhammad: the six-month work permit costs a third of what he earns as a construction worker in the Israeli town of Bet Shemesh.

Laying tiles on the roof of a new cottage-style house, he tells us, “What’s left is barely enough to sustain my family. But I need that permit, I need the work to feed my six children.”

To reach his job in the Israeli town, only 20 km away as the crow flies, is something of a major expedition.

It’s still pitch dark when Muhammad wakes before 3 a.m. “At dawn, I’ve already left home,” he says. He takes the minibus that makes a roundabout journey picking up workers in eight other West Bank villages. Eventually, they reach the Israeli military checkpoint at Bet Guvrin.

There, it’s in the long line with other Palestinians lucky enough to have a permit. At best, it’ll be a couple of hours before he clears the security including an X-ray machine. “I have to be at work by 7 a.m. sharp.”

Ramadan, with its extra expense (families and friends hosted every evening for the festive Iftar meal that breaks the daily fast) and shorter working hours, is a time when most Palestinians especially struggle to make ends meet.

Younger laborers who haven’t managed to secure a permit slip through the Israeli security fence and evade the military checkpoints just to get a chance to do a day’s work picking almonds in orchards in the rural communities around Bet Shemesh.

It’s the height of the harvest season, extra hands are needed, so if you haven’t got a permit, who among the Israeli farmers is going to ask too many questions?

But for Muhammad, the work permit is a life insurance policy for his family. “If I wouldn’t have a permit, I’d sit at home – simple as that.”

Normally, Muhammad works a full eight-hour day. These days during the fast, his Arab Israeli contractor gives his fellow Palestinians special dispensation; the workday is cut short at 2:30 p.m.

Ramadan is a time of worship, of self-reflection, of contemplation. After he’ll cross back into the West Bank through the Israeli checkpoint, the minibus will stop to allow Muhammad and his fellow workers time for the afternoon prayer.

On Friday when they don’t work, they wish they could travel to Jerusalem 35 km away to pray – especially now during Ramadan – at the al-Aqsa mosque, Islam’s third holiest site.

For that, they can only pray. For Palestinians from outside Jerusalem to be allowed to pray at the Noble Sanctuary requires another Israeli permit.

On Friday, there will be tens of thousands in al-Aqsa – those who have managed to secure the sought-after permit. But says Muhammad, “You have to be at least 50, and also to have a regular permit allowing you into Jerusalem. It’s hopeless, I don’t even bother trying.”

Muhammad leans heavily on his bulky compressor. He’s sweating profusely. Ramadan’s a month of abstinence from eating, drinking, and smoking during daylight. It’s especially testing when it coincides with the heart of the summer with temperatures well into the 100s. Muhammad leans on his faith: “Faith in God gives you strength.”

Back home, Muhammad greets his wife and his mother, stoops to pick up his youngest, an eight-month old boy, takes a shower, dresses in a striped galabiyah robe. The women are busily preparing the Iftar fare.

In Bet Shemesh, Muhammad is helping build the Israeli middle-class dream. Here in his home village, concerns are more basic.

Nestling in a biblical landscape of low hills and low lands, Hirbet Deir is a traditional Palestinian hamlet of just over a dozen households. The 260 people – all from the same extended family – seem, for all the world, to have been left unnoticed by the passage of time.

Had they not built the village infrastructure on their own, they’d have been committed to a life – not a month – of abstinence. But, through their own efforts, all homes have both running water and electricity.

Yet, it’s the security needs of those who control the land which have left this small community in limbo, re-defined the contours of the village fields.

Abu Ibrahim, Muhammad’s uncle and his grandchildren are watering their olive trees.

The orchard is almost within touching distance of Israel’s electronic fence (a barrier built, says Israel, to keep out would-be suicide bombers). As a result, Muhammad tells us, Hirbet Deir is cut off from most of its arable land.

“The separation fence uprooted 200 of my olive trees, swallowed up 45 dunam [11 acres] of my father’s land,” he says. “I’m trying to get a permit from Israel that will allow me access to my olives over there on the other side of the fence.”

To no avail. Muhammad’s trees are left unattended.

This fall, his work permit inside Israel expires. It’ll be the start of the rainy season. With the first rain will come the olive harvest. If only there were no need for any Israeli permits – to get to work inside Israel, to get to work his field beyond the fence, to get to pray at al-Aqsa…

Dusk. Time to break the fast: men and women dine separately in adjacent rooms. The food is profuse, tasty – boiled young goat, fried rice and almonds, stuffed chicken, followed by traditional Ramadan sweets.

After blessing the food, drinking his first glass of water, and swallowing his first bite of stuffed grape leaves, Muhammad says, “Ramadan’s another world, a month different from all the other days of the year, a whole month devoted to God. It re-affirms your faith, your tradition, your roots. You sit down together, the whole family, every evening, around the table – your heart as pure as snow.”

A picture of the holy shrine in Jerusalem adorns the wall of the living room, as in most Palestinian homes.

Muhammad knows that, like most Palestinians, on Friday he’ll pray at the local mosque.

(Inter Press Service)

Author: Jerrold Kessel and Pierre Klochendler

Jerrold Kessel and Pierre Klochendler write for Inter Press Service.