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Poverty, Isolation, Uncertainty Mar Ramadan Celebrations for Palestinians

Muslims in the Palestinian territories, like in other places, are marking the end of Ramadan, a season of fasting. It is also a time to ask forgiveness, practice self-restraint, and pray for the future. But for many Palestinians this Ramadan has highlighted the realities of poverty and uncertainty over peace with Israel. VOA's Luis Ramirez reports from Ramallah, in the West Bank.

In the last days of Ramadan, the streets of Ramallah are crowded with vendors selling special sweets for the sumptuous meal that crowns a day of fasting. Typically, Muslim families gather for the feast at sundown, when the call to prayer from the minaret signals the end of the fast.

For Neela Mahmoud, 32, and rearing nine children in the town of Bir Zeit, outside Ramallah, the breaking of the fast is - in some ways - a time to dread. On this evening, she has only bread and water to break the fast.

"This is the most difficult Ramadan that we have ever known," she says. "My husband cannot work. There are no organizations that will help us. It has been hard to put food on the table."

On this evening, friends bring rice, lentils and yogurt - a typical Palestinian peasant's meal. For Neela Mahmoud's children, it is a feast.

Neela's husband, Khalaf, was recently in an Israeli prison. He says he faced a number of charges of plotting military action against the Israeli occupation forces. He is out on a suspended sentence.

With Israeli checkpoints everywhere, he says his life continues to be a prison.

"I cannot go anywhere outside of the Palestinian territories because I have a suspended sentence," he explains. "If I am caught outside the Palestinian areas, I will be put back in jail."

The security barrier, a system of concrete walls and fences that Israel is putting up to protect itself from suicide bombers and other attackers from the West Bank, has cut off Palestinians' access to relatively well-paying jobs in Israel. Since the barrier went up, the number of terrorist attacks on Israeli civilians has diminished considerably.

For Israelis, the barrier has brought improved security. For Palestinian families like that of Khalaf and Neela, it has brought hunger and misery.

"I used to work inside Israel before the wall," Khalaf explains. "Now, they will not give me a permit and I cannot find work here. I used to work as a gardener. I used to do all kinds of jobs inside Israel. But now, I am unable to get a permit and especially because I was in jail. People feed us. We have no food, if people do not feed us, we do not eat. Sometimes, I have a days' work and I come with some money. But that is not often."

Khalaf says despair over not being able to feed his nine children has made him want to give them away.

In the West Bank's main city, Ramallah, a street vendor hawks Ramadan lanterns. Their sparkle and chimes do little to lift spirits. He says the absence of jobs means no business for him.

"I have much merchandise, but very few customers," he admits.

The wish expressed by many here is for peace with Israel. But even during Ramadan, it is hard for many to put aside the grim reality.

A 14-year-old boy says his house still has bullet holes from an Israeli incursion years ago.

"During Ramadan, we forgive people and people forgive us," he explains.

Would he be willing to forgive Israel?

"It depends. If the Israelis are harsh with me, I will be harsh on them. I cannot forgive them," he says.

For many, like Neela Mahmoud, the main concern now is the everyday struggle to feed her family.

"My biggest wish this Ramadan is for my husband to find work," she says. "My biggest wish is for people to think of each other during Ramadan. The meaning of Ramadan is to help the poor. The meaning of Ramadan is to help each other. Unfortunately, everyone is having a hard time."

Neela says she prays for peace and an end to the fear and checkpoints that prevent her husband from going to work. She doubts reports that Israelis and Palestinians may be close to reaching a peace agreement. If there is a peace accord, she says she hopes it is one that will result in better living conditions for her family.