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How the first day of Ramadan went in Jerusalem and Gaza

MARY LOUISE KELLY, HOST:

The Muslim holy month of Ramadan has arrived with no cease-fire in Gaza. That is crushing the hopes of Palestinians, who are facing famine and war. Adding to that is growing anxiety about tensions spreading to Jerusalem, where the Al-Aqsa Mosque sits at the very center of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Well, NPR's Fatma Tanis is in Jerusalem. She joins me now. Hey, Fatma.

FATMA TANIS, BYLINE: Hi, Mary Louise.

KELLY: So bring us up to speed, if you would, on several threads of this war, and let's start in northern Gaza. This is where people are facing some of the very worst conditions. What are you hearing from people? How are they observing Ramadan?

TANIS: Well, we're talking about nearly 300,000 people living in the north, where civil order has almost entirely collapsed. And they're mostly cut off from aid. You know, people said that they are fasting this Ramadan since there's no food anyway. But they're having to do it without many of the Ramadan traditions, like eating before dawn or, you know, no nightly prayers because it's too dangerous to be out. Very few people can afford to buy canned goods and small amounts of flour for a very steep price on the black market. But most are barely surviving on things like animal feed, leaves and hay. I want to bring in 22-year-old Ghaida Al Nawajah, who spoke to photojournalist Omar Al Qattaa.

GHAIDA AL NAWAJAH: (Non-English language spoken).

AL NAWAJAH: She was hoping that a cease-fire would come through right down to the last second before Ramadan was announced and that they could get aid and she could reunite with her fiance and family, who are in the south, and at least to be able to make the most out of it, even in these horrifying conditions.

KELLY: Yeah. OK, so her family in the south - that turns me to there, down by the border with Egypt. How different are things there?

TANIS: Well, there's more aid coming to the south than in the north, but people there are facing things like daily airstrikes. There's a looming threat of an invasion in Rafah. People attended prayers for Ramadan, but they were, you know, in the rubble of destroyed mosques. Many told NPR that they felt alone and abandoned and said that they had nothing to hold on to except their faith. Now, Ramadan is usually very festive. And for many, it's about reflection, charity and fasting, and people are really yearning for that this year. One man said that he was really sad about not having any dates, which is traditionally what people break their fast with.

KELLY: OK, I mentioned that you're in Jerusalem. Tell us about what's happening there. What's it like tonight?

TANIS: Mary Louise, it definitely doesn't feel like Ramadan. I mean, the war in Gaza has overshadowed everything. There are no decorations. Most of the shops in the Old City are shuttered. Now, since the October 7 attack by Hamas, Israel has put a lot of restrictions on Palestinian movement, especially with regards to Al-Aqsa Mosque, which is on a site that's holy to both Muslims and Jews, who know it as the Temple Mount. Now, Israel has said that it would ease restrictions over the next month and it would be decided on a weekly basis. But people are still uneasy. Yesterday, on the first night of prayers, there was a heavy police presence. They didn't allow many men under the age of 40 to come in, and there was even a moment where police charged at the crowd and hit people with batons.

KELLY: You used the word uneasy. I mean, how real are concerns that the uneasiness, that the tension in Jerusalem could flare up during Ramadan?

TANIS: It's very possible. And it all comes down to Al-Aqsa and how much Israel will restrict access. Palestinians and Muslims around the world perceive the mosque to be under threat. You know, Hamas knows this and often evokes Al-Aqsa in order to galvanize people. Now, with the region already on edge over the war, experts who watch the city and the mosque closely say the smallest amount of tensions could easily spin out of control.

KELLY: That is NPR's Fatma Tanis in Jerusalem. Thanks, Fatma.

TANIS: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Fatma Tanis