Chronicle of the Middle East and North Africa

Palestinians Observe Christmas in Joy and Grief

Well before Christmas, Israel denied 200 Palestinians entry permits to the West Bank, citing security reasons.

Palestinians Christmas
Christian pilgrims light candles at the Church of Nativity in the biblical West Bank city of Bethlehem ahead of Christmas, on December 16, 2022. AHMAD GHARABLI / AFP

Dana Hourany

As the world welcomes the holidays and the end to 2022, so do the Christian Palestinians, who make up less than 1% of Palestine‘s population.

After months of lockdowns brought on by the spread of Covid-19, celebrations have resumed, particularly in Bethlehem, where Jesus was born at the site that is now known as the Church of the Nativity – a vital component of Palestinian identity and heritage.

The name Bethlehem, Aramaic and Hebrew for “home of bread,” denotes that the area is exceptionally fertile and well adapted for farming, primarily the cultivation of wheat needed to produce bread. The region is of exceptional interest and significance to the Christian faith worldwide because it is where the first known Christian communities were founded.

Bethlehem is a well-known destination for pilgrimage where Christians travel each Christmas to fulfill a spiritual journey. Indigenous Christians, meanwhile, continue to live under siege from Israeli occupation troops in their city, which is surrounded by an illegal separation wall, 22 illegal settlements established on city property, and more than 30 checkpoints. Their ability to support themselves and freely visit Bethlehem and other holy sites at their discretion has, for years, been significantly hindered.

The holiday season, according to experts and observers, plays a significant role in giving the locals a sense of normalcy and a break from all the unrest, which they fear will continue to worsen for Palestinians, Christian and Muslim alike.

The struggle of Palestinian Christians

Christians are a minority in Palestine; their presence and culture is severely threatened by Israeli occupation and apartheid. In Jerusalem, the occupied West Bank, and the remainder of the occupied territories, they are under threat of disappearing altogether due to ongoing efforts to drive them out of the Old City of Jerusalem and other areas of the Holy Land.

According to a statement issued by Jerusalem’s church leaders in December 2021, Israeli far-right settlers have been “attacking Christians frequently and persistently” in an attempt to reduce their presence.

The Christian Quarter of the Old City, where Israel has gained strategic advantage, experienced a sharp decline in the number of Christians as a result of these organizations “often using shady dealings and intimidation tactics to evict residents from their homes,” according to the statement.

Israeli right-wing groups like the Lehava and “price tag” movements routinely destroy Christian sites while also verbally and physically abusing local priests and worshipers in response to any policy that they perceive as a threat to the settler movement in the occupied Palestinian territories.

In Jerusalem, there have been more violent events recently, with at least 24 attacks against churches in the last six years, according to a report published by the International Community of the Holy Sepulchre.

Despite these depressing figures, some 10,000 people were reportedly present in Bethlehem’s Square on Christmas Eve last year. However, a UN report reveals that 2022 was the worst year for Palestinians since 2005 as a result of the over 150 Palestinian deaths in the occupied West Bank over the course of the year, including 33 children. The Palestinian community has been further uprooted as a result, and the holiday season has been tainted by despair.

Keeping the holiday spirit

The holidays this year are particularly stressful, according to Palestinian journalist and scholar Jeries Basier, who lives close to Bethlehem. Five Palestinians were killed by Israeli troops in November alone, including two brothers in their early 20s, a driver who is accused of running over a soldier, and an 18-year-old teenager.

Additionally, the horrific shooting on May 12 by Israeli troops of Shireen Abu Akleh, a Palestinian-American Al-Jazeera journalist who also happened to be Christian, has particularly grieved the West Bank’s Christian population, Basier added.

Despite it all, Basier told Fanack, “one could still see traces of joy and enthusiasm, especially with the lighting of the Christmas trees in Bethlehem and the surrounding neighborhoods.”

Since Bethlehem relies so heavily on tourism, the three years of closure during the COVID-19 pandemic have been difficult. In addition to nativity figures, and other children-friendly entertainment, the town where Jesus was born hosts Christmas markets where tiny handicraft shops sell ornaments, handmade goods, and souvenirs of every kind.

This year, according to Basier, the markets saw large crowds of people returning, giving the neighborhood a sense of stability.

“Bethlehem is unique because it is where the nativity story begins. Due to its strong ties to Christian history, this area is deeply ingrained in people’s consciousness,” Basier said. “We do worry, though, that if the violence worsens and there are more fatalities, the celebrations might come to an end.”

In Nablus, the city where the two brothers were killed in November, according to the journalist, only private gatherings and Sunday services were organized in memory of the deceased.

“Our pain is one because Christians and Muslims in Palestine feel a sense of solidarity with one another. Celebrating while people are dying is unthinkable,” he said.

For the children

Palestinians Christmas
Puppet show performed by Al-Hara theater in Bethlehem, Palestine on December 20th 2022. Photo credit : Issam Rechmawy

Children are particularly affected by the increasing violence, according to Marina Barham, director of the Al-Hara Theater. Her association organizes parades, puppet shows, and theatrical productions for both children and adults.

The organization has been staging performances in Palestinian towns and villages in preparation for Christmas. In one of their performances, “Sandy and Candy,” two elves attempt to assist Father Christmas in accessing children who are difficult to reach due to Israeli checkpoints. The play focuses on the importance of spending Christmas with family, despite challenges, and the necessity to refrain from assigning gifts an excessive amount of value.

In addition, the director asserts that because children are acutely aware of all the tensions and sorrows occurring around them, they are in desperate need of amusement and happy moments in order to reclaim their spirit of childhood. In order to guarantee that audiences of all ages experience a part of the holiday festivities, the director makes sure her plays are as interactive as possible.

Another element that influences children’s psychology, in Barham’s assessment, is the detention of children and deaths at the hands of Israeli soldiers. Since 2015, it is believed that Israeli authorities have jailed around 9,000 Palestinian youth, the majority of whom are from the occupied city of Jerusalem. According to humanitarian observers, psychological warfare is employed to intimidate youth and weaken Palestinian resistance through arbitrary and illegal detentions.

“For more over 70 years, this horrific reality that we, as Palestinians, have suffered has resulted in trauma upon trauma. Children inherit this trauma as well as acquire their own, and in turn resort to violent behavior in many instances,” Barham said.

Between staying and leaving

Well before the festive season, the Greek Orthodox Church in Gaza delivered a list of 800 names to the Palestinian Civil Affairs Committee in Gaza, which is in charge of informing Israeli authorities about permit requests made by Gaza residents who want to celebrate Christmas in the West Bank. However, 200 of them were denied entry permits by Israel, citing security reasons, Al-Monitor reported.

This makes it difficult for families to reunite, and sometimes it’s easier for them to do so in Turkiye, for example, than it is in their home country, according to Barham.

Immigration is another issue that threatens the existence of Palestinian Christians, according to Basier and Barham. Because of the political and economic difficulties they encounter at home, Basier notes that a large number of young Christians believe their futures may be established elsewhere.

“It’s essential to mention that many of them do return to Palestine once they’ve accumulated enough means,” according to Basier. “However, due to challenging living conditions, we observe that young couples are not having as many children.”

Similarly, Barham points out that lately, more individuals have been discussing immigration, including those who hadn’t done so before. Elderly individuals, in particular, feel that they should live out their remaining retirement years in respect and dignity.

Both believe that, despite the dwindling numbers, Christian culture is not in danger of disappearing since those who remain are concerned with preserving customs and heritage.

Youth exhibit a great deal of concern during celebrations in their bid to protect the Palestinian identity, particularly the religious aspect, Barham said. “Every year, you can see pilgrims visiting holy sites, choirs, decorations, traditional delicacies, and much more.”

Basier notes that communities like Bethlehem’s have treasured these traditions for decades and are likely to do so in the future. “As long as there are Christians in the Holy Land, the traditions that evolved from there and survived many years of violence will be able to sustain much greater hardship in the future,” he said.

After all, “If we go, to whom are we leaving this land for?” Basier says, citing an old local proverb.

Tourism as a weapon

Humanitarian expert and general coordinator of the Christian Palestinian Movement, Kairos Refaat Odeh Kassis emphasizes that tourism is essential to preserving Christian Palestinian culture and legacy.

Kassis founded the “Alternative Tourism Group” in the 1990s to ensure that the locals, who in his perspective are portrayed by dreadful stereotypes, were given a reason to be hopeful.

According to Kassis, “international and mostly Western tourists typically come to Bethlehem and other pilgrimage sites with a negative notion of Palestinians being violent, dishonest, and inhospitable.”

“We try to eliminate the distance between visitors and residents and dispel these myths through our efforts.”

The expert observed that visitors would typically arrive, but not engage with locals or even purchase something as meagre as a water bottle from them.

Now, Kassis says that his tourism company has grown to include offices across Palestine and has expanded its services to include religious trips for visitors from abroad coming to the West Bank.

Hiking the nativity trail and holy family trail, for instance, are part of this religious journey, which Kassis stresses should also be complemented by respecting and speaking to the indigenous people.

“Doing so helps gather supporters for the Palestinian cause from foreigners who might otherwise remain ignorant and vulnerable to Israeli propaganda.”

Kassis remains concerned about the situation of Christians in Palestine, but he points out that in addition to their own work at Kairos, efforts are being undertaken by the youth and other residents. The Kairos movement connects with churches in the West in an effort to encourage them to speak out against Israeli apartheid and in support of Palestine, he said.

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