GAZA, Aug 9 (Reuters) - Ramadan, the Muslim holy month where the devout fast by day and feast at night, is different in Gaza this year thanks to the partial relaxation of Israel’s blockade, allowing shops to fill with special items for the occasion.
Colourful lines of candies, dairy products, pickles, dates and snacks crowd market stall and shelves of stores in Gaza City’s main market that were scantily stocked last year.
“Last year there were no olives, only my own produce. This time we have olives from the West Bank. Today something is getting through the crossing,” said trader Mohammed Al-Helw.
Ramadan is the holiest month in the Islamic calendar. Muslims the world over spend the month fasting from daylight until sunset. They stop eating, drinking, smoking and sex.
When the fast is broken each evening, it’s time for a feast of dates, rice, meat and sweets. In the past few years the ingredients of this banquet were not easy to come by in Gaza.
Most of the Mediterranean coastal territory’s 1.5 million people rely on U.N. food aid trucked in daily from Israel to sustain life, but this consists of necessary staples only.
In June, however, following an international outcry when Israeli commandos killed nine Turkish activists in an aid flotilla that was trying to breach the naval cordon on Gaza, Israel ordered a relaxation of its strict blockade.
In a change of rules, it said everything not specifically barred could be brought in. Electrical appliances, health and medical goods, soft drinks and packaged snacks have since flowed into Gaza, although Israeli maintains a ban on 3,000 items.
Foremost among prohibited goods are cement and steel, most of which Israel believes could be used by the ruling Islamist Hamas movement to make weapons and build military bunkers.
The United Nations says this prevents Gaza from rebuilding the homes and factories destroyed in Israel’s three-week offensive in 2009, and together with the export ban, condemns many Gazans to unemployment, which is now over 40 pct.
“Today there are goods but most of the people are without jobs,” said Helw as customers crowded into his shop.
In addition to being short of cash, Gaza suffers a crisis of electricity. Chronic power shortages make most people wary of stockpiling food in freezers. Fresh food merchants worry constantly about their stock rotting in the summer heat.
Pre-Ramadan shoppers were drawn to exotic labels and brands unseen for a few years, including many made-in-Israel goods.
The shelves are full of different kinds of dates, an essential Ramadan delicacy now imported from various countries.
Last year the only soft drinks available in Gaza -- where alcohol is banned -- were local concoctions or brands smuggled from neighbouring Egypt through the tunnels that have been Gaza’s lifeline. This year, Gazans have an abundant choice.
“When the crossing opened, it created competition, and prices are cheaper,” said shopper Raed Helles.
To Gaza’s relief, a heat wave that has gripped the region for the past two weeks is due to abate by the beginning of Ramadan, which starts in two or three days.
Many Muslims say day-long fasting is already hard enough to endure in the summer months, without having to put up with the consequences of a dispute between rival Palestinian authorities that has left the electricity bill to Israel unpaid.
Editing by Douglas Hamilton and Mark Heinrich