In the West Bank, a somber Feast of Sacrifice

On festive Muslim holiday, Palestinians mourn those who died fighting Israel

February 03, 2004|By Peter Hermann | Peter Hermann,SUN FOREIGN STAFF

EL-BIREH, West Bank - They came not in a procession but in a trickle, each family standing over the grave of a lost loved one, offering prayers and paying their respects.

The families were in a cemetery yesterday where Palestinians in the Ramallah area who are killed fighting Israelis are laid to rest, and visiting their graves has become an important part of celebrating Eid al-Adha, the Feast of the Sacrifice.

The three-day feast, which concludes today and coincides with the end of Muslims' hajj, or pilgrimage, to Mecca in Saudi Arabia, commemorates Abraham offering his son as a sacrifice to God, who upon seeing Abraham's commitment, spared the child.

Throughout the Muslim world yesterday, from isolated farming villages to crowded capitals, stores and schools were closed and the streets eerily devoid of the typical crush of cars and honking horns.

It is a joyous occasion, broken only by the duty to remember the dead. Much of the time is spent visiting relatives, eating sumptuous foods, such as sweet pastry filled with dates, and buying toys for young boys and dresses for young girls.

In the West Bank, Ramallah was full of sounds of happiness. Even at Israeli checkpoints, Palestinians smiled as they carried food past soldiers. Children darted around corners in the commercial hub playing with toy guns, while teens set off firecrackers that echoed from one end of the city to the other.

But the checkpoints set up to prevent attacks in Israel were jammed as Palestinian families dressed in their best tried to visit relatives in other cities and villages. Some made it through despite tightened security since a suicide bombing last week in Jerusalem; many did not.

A day to mourn

In the West Bank it is a somber holiday, highlighted as always by the diminishing number of families who can afford to sacrifice a sheep or cow, donating part of the meat to the needy, and feasting with relatives, but it has become a day to mourn.

"How can we be happy during this difficult time?" asked Salem Morar, who visited yesterday the burial plot of his brother Fawzi, a militant killed two years ago in the neighboring village of al-Tira.

Like all Palestinians killed in battle or killed while attacking Israelis, Fawzi, who was 26 and a gunman for the Aqsa Martyrs Brigades, is considered a martyr, a person who suffers for a cause, and thus is held in reverence even as he is cried over by his family.

"Everyone has either lost a family member or knows some- body in jail or who has had their house destroyed," said Morar, 32, who came to the cemetery with his four children, his widowed sister-in-law and her three children.

They formed a semicircle around the marble slab over Fawzi's tomb, their shoes sinking into dirt muddied by an overnight rain, and bowed their heads, staying only for a few minutes. No one, not even the children, shed a tear.

An inscription on nearly every "martyr's tomb" reminds the mournful not to cry, and suggests to surviving relatives that the story of Abraham is linked to their ordeal.

"Do not consider that those killed for the sake of God are dead," the verse from the Quran reads. "They are alive with their Lord and are being cared for."

The cemetery in el-Bireh is divided into two sections - one for those whose deaths are linked to the Palestinian uprisings and another for everyone else.

There are hundreds of graves here - those of militant leaders whose funerals commanded parades through Ramallah and those of people known only to their friends and families.

The cemetery is unremarkable save for the inscriptions on the tombs - Fawzi Morar's notes that he was "assassinated by an airplane of the Zionist enemy" - and its location beneath a hill on which sits the Jewish settlement of Psgot. The cemetery was damaged three years ago when militants traded gunfire with Israeli soldiers stationed there.

A message of faith

Sheik Munther al-Ori runs the Al Bin Abi Taleb mosque across the street from the cemetery. Sitting in a library of prayer books, he talked of the difficulties that the faithful must endure during what is supposed to be a festive time.

Ori, who was dressed in a plain brown robe and wore a long, untrimmed beard, said he told worshipers not to link those killed in the struggle with Israel to Abraham's willingness to sacrifice his son. Instead, he urged followers to strengthen their beliefs, to remember that this holiday is a time for introspection, not blame, for thoughtful analysis, not raw emotion. Mourn the dead, he told them, but direct anger into renewed faith, not violence.

"The prophet Mohammed told us that he feared a time when there would be many Muslims in numbers, but not in faith," Ori said. "I fear that time is upon us. What good does it do to blame Israel or America when we have made mistakes?"

He said the mistake to which he referred was letting the foundations of Islam slip away.

That can be a difficult message for parents or children staring at the graves that cover the sloping hillside. Ribhi Shawabkeh, 55, walked yesterday along the cemetery's broken stone wall, not to mourn a dead son, but to remember a jailed one.

His son is Abdel, a 32-year-old father of five who worked at a tool foundry and was a member of the Aqsa Martyrs Brigade, one of the most radical militant groups. Shawabkeh said Israeli authorities arrested his son 18 months ago.

He came to the cemetery to show respect for a neighbor's children who have died and to pray at the mosque. He has made a sacrifice, he said, one that is necessary but difficult to celebrate on a day meant for laughter and fun.

"I'm missing my son," Shawabkeh said slowly. "My son is not with me. We don't have joy. We have fear. There is a void in my house and in many others. Each house is missing somebody.

"I want a better day, a day when I don't have to pretend to my grandchildren that I am happy."

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