When the Israelis Arm the Arabs

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Emilio Morenatti / AP

A cannon fires a ceremonial shot that ends Muslim's daily fast during the Ramadan holiday outside Jerusalem's Old City.

As the sun sets over Jerusalem's Old City, anyone scanning the adjacent hillside through field glasses would see a rather suspicious transaction. Two men, on foot, rendezvous in an ancient Muslim cemetery. One man, an Israeli, hands the other an object, then hurries away past tombstones scattered like broken bones. The other man, an Arab named Rjaae Sandouka, places the object in a long tube, scans his watch and then flicks a cigarette lighter to a fuse, then steps back as a missile whooshes out of the tube, arcs into the darkening sky and explodes with a percussive BOOM! that scatters pigeons and triggers car alarms.

Sandouka smiles to himself, then reaches for a canteen. He takes a long gulp of water, his first drink of the day, and contemplates a brace of stars sparkling like fireflies around the nearby minaret. He is no terrorist, but sometimes Sandouka feels that the Israelis treat him like one. For over a century, Sandouka's family have been in charge of firing a cannon, at dawn and dusk, that signals for Jerusalem's Muslims the beginning and the end of each day's fasting during the holy month of Ramadan.

Although the cannon ritual is universal across the Islamic world, from Morocco to Mindanao, the idea of an Arab possessing explosives and a very large gun in the heart of Jerusalem strikes a deep fear among Israelis. As Sandouka, who is an actor by profession, says with a wry smile, "What can I say? We're Arabs living under occupation, and this is an explosive device. It's a worry to the Israelis."

Each year, as Ramadan approaches, Sandouka faces a mounting series of bureaucratic obstacles to performing his time-honored task. A few years ago, the Israeli authorities banned him from making gunpowder, which he used in a real British-made cannon. "Oh, it was so wonderfully loud," he muses. "Every Muslim in Jerusalem could hear it, even though the cannon made me a bit deaf."

Having stopped him from using the cannon, the Israelis instead gave him a month's supply of stun grenades, onto which he would put a fuse and launch. Then they deemed his stockpile too dangerous, too. Now, an Israeli official — the furtive fellow in the Muslim cemetery — hand-delivers one grenade to Sandouka at 4 a.m., and then a second one at around 5:30 p.m., and waits in his car until he hears the cracking boom before he speeds off.

But that's not all: Every year, Sandouka, who fortunately is a calm man with a healthy sense of the absurd, has to reapply for his permit to fire the grenade launcher. This involves multiple trips to several police stations, the Shin Bet (Israel's version of the FBI), the Labor Ministry, the Explosives Department at the Ministry of Public Security, and back again to the Labor Ministry for the final stamp of approval.

For next year, the Israelis have raised the bar another notch: Sandouka must pay $2,000 to enroll in a course on handling explosives. "This is crazy," Sandouka says wryly, as if he expected nothing less. "I've been lighting the fuse for over 15 years, and not once has anything gone wrong." He'd also like to pass on the tradition to his 17-year old son, so that's another $2,000, which Sandouka will find difficult to scrape together on his actor's wages.

The press attention attracted by his plight has prompted Jerusalem's orthodox Jewish mayor, Uri Lupolianski, to promise that the city would bankroll the Arab cannoneer's training course in explosives. "Sandouka should be allowed to continue the tradition of operating the cannon," the mayor stated. "Changing the situation could cause damage to the delicate coexistence in Jerusalem." But Sandouka is not convinced. "I think they're trying to make me so fed up that one day, I'll just walk away. But I won't. This honor belongs to my family, and I'd never let an outsider do this."

Several times, Sandouka was caught in rush hour traffic and set off his cannon too late. "It was only five minutes," he says, "but the next day people came up and complained, as if I'd committed a terrible crime." He understands. "When you're hungry after a day of fasting, every second counts," he says, hastening hungrily out of the graveyard toward his own dinner.

With reporting by Jamil Hamad/Jerusalem