05:26 a.m. Jan 15, 1998 Eastern
GAZA, Jan 15 (Reuters) - The rhythm of fasting by day and feasting by night during the Moslem holy month of Ramadan infuses fresh vitality into the Gaza Strip's suffocating sprawl of teeming slums, refugee camps and concrete high-rise buildings.
For the nearly one million Palestinians of the self-ruled canton hemmed in by Israeli razor wire and gunboats, any escape from the economic collapse and political stalemate gripping Gaza after four years of Israeli-PLO peacemaking is welcome relief.
The beaming grin of a six-metre (19.7 feet) high mural of Palestinian President Yasser Arafat is mirrored on the faces of full-bellied residents strolling lazily down Gaza City's central promenade after iftar, the post-sundown meal which breaks the day's fast.
Peddlers hawk inky carob juice from glass-sided pushcarts kept chilled by rough-hewn slabs of ice.
A festive Christmas tree towers incongruously over the Square of the Unknown Soldier, brightening celebrations of the sacred month during which tradition has it that the Prophet Mohammad in the seventh century began receiving the divine revelations that became the Koran, Islam's holy scripture.
The night-time jaunts of young couples and easy
jesting of gawky youths reflect the simple freedoms Gazans have enjoyed since a 1993 peace
deal launched PLO self-rule and ended the curfews and street protests under Israel's
But the sunken eyes and mounting debts of shopkeepers watching passing Ramadan revellers tell of the bitter economic depression that has, for many Gazans, unmasked promises of prosperity as empty slogans of a flawed peace.
``Business is frightful,'' said Nawaf al-Saadi, drawing on a Marlboro in his neat clothing shop. ``People don't have any money. There are no jobs. They just walk and look but nobody buys.''
He said his business slumped 40 percent last year, a reflection of falling Palestinian incomes and severe unemployment which have accompanied Israeli border closures following suicide bombings inside the Jewish state.
Saadi said he hasn't had a good year since the influx in 1994 of Palestinian expatriates who returned to Gaza to help establish the Palestinian Authority.
``Now, the only people who can afford the clothes I sell go abroad to shop,'' he said.
Ramadan, however, is a charitable season.
In the Jabalya refugee camp, where donkey carts vie with cars for space on potholed roads flooded with the mud of winter rains, a donor-funded Ramadan mobile cinema gives scruffy camp children their first glimpse of the big screen.
``I've never been to a cinema before,'' said 11-year-old Zahir Abd al-Ghafir, watching Disney's Simba the lion sing in flawless Arabic on the wall of a youth centre.
Gaza has been without a movie theatre since an Islamist mob set fire to the Cinema An-Nasr in 1994 following the killing by Palestinian police of 13 people outside a mosque.
``It'd be better if it was open permanently,'' Abd al-Ghafir said.
Ramadan -- when many Moslems twin their obligation to fast with the religious duty of zakat, giving charity -- is the busy season for a vast network of Islamic welfare institutions which alleviate Gaza's endemic poverty.
Even charities which the Authority, under Israeli and U.S. pressure, shut down last summer in the wake of Islamist suicide attacks in Jerusalem because of their alleged links to the militant group Hamas, keep the aid flowing during Ramadan.
``We were officially ordered closed so I'm not working out of the office,'' said the director of one Islamic charity which dispenses nearly $1.7 million in cash payments collected from Moslems worldwide to some 5,000 needy Gazans.
The director, who insisted he was not identified, pointed out sardonically that he was dealing with staple foodstuffs -- tea, sugar, cooking oil, rice and flour -- not contraband.
``It's Ramadan so we have to manage,'' he said at the charity's temporary home in a kindergarten. ``I won't be punished for my principles.''
© Copyright 1998, Reuters News Service