This Christmas marks the third anniversary of the 2008-2009 Israeli war on the Gaza Strip; a winter in which 19-year-old Ramy El Jelda saw his home bombed just two days after Christmas. He returned to the site a couple of days later to find his Christmas decorations scattered across the road.
“The baubles and bells were on the floor. The tree had been blown out of the house and was in the street. We cried. That is how we celebrated Christmas in 2008.”
Today the small number of Christmas trees that grace Gaza are primarily plastic and limited to Christian households, hotel lobbies and uptown restaurants. The Israeli blockade leaves Christmas tree fairy lights in a ghostly darkness during the daily eight-hour rolling blackouts.
For Ramy and the 3,000-strong Christian community in Gaza, festive Christmas celebrations go hand-in-hand with isolation and travel restrictions to Bethlehem, despite Israeli public claims to the contrary.
But this year holds hope for a happier occasion, despite the obstacles that Palestinian Christians in Gaza continue to face.
“Christmas helps children remember they are young,” explained Ramy, describing the traditions of the Greek Orthodox community, which celebrates Christmas on January 7. “On Christmas Day we go to our grandmother’s house and my whole family has lunch together. It is a small Eid (feast) but we celebrate for three days, visiting each others’ homes.”
Jaber El Jelda, a distant relative of Ramy, is the director of the Orthodox Church, one of Gaza’s few churches, along with the Baptist Church and Holy Family Catholic Church. He explained how the Orthodox Christian community marks the occasion.
“We organize a party on the first of January and offer children gifts, celebrating Christmas with songs and folklore and the traditional Palestinian dabka dance. We, and members of the Baptist and Catholic churches celebrate in each others’ celebrations. We’re like one.”
Although Christmas in Gaza bears a resemblance to its portrayal in other countries, the echoes are overwhelmingly superficial, as Ramy explained, “We put up a tree in the home and decorate it with bells. We put candles and holly around the house and children receive gifts of money, called eideyya.”
Ramy considers Christmas in Gaza to be disconnected to festivities outside of the siege. “Christmas in Gaza is different; it is a local celebration, not connected to Christmas outside. We don’t really ‘do’ Santa and it’s not like I’ve seen Christmas celebrated in the movies.”
Bethlehem off-limits: Israel’s Facade of Tolerance
Christmas for Gaza’s Palestinians entails far more complications than complex wrapping and tree decorations. As a small minority in the coastal enclave, the Gaza Christian community would traditionally visit Bethlehem, Jerusalem or Ramallah for the festive season, joining their families and communities in a full celebration.
Ramy described how all Christians used to be permitted by the Israeli government to visit the West Bank for Christmas. “Now they only give permission to a few people and you must be over 35 or under 16. Invariably, if parents receive permission, the children don’t and vice versa.”
It is a loophole that many Palestinians believe is being exploited by the Israeli authorities. The Israeli authorities have advertised that 500 Christians are allowed to celebrate Christmas in their holy sites as a ‘goodwill gesture.’ But in practical terms, very few of those eligible are granted the right to make the fifty mile trip from Gaza to Jerusalem, and those who do have to sacrifice a Christmas with their families.
Jaber has given up requesting permission because his sons are at university and therefore will automatically be denied travel rights. “My uncle and cousins live in Ramallah, but I can’t celebrate Christmas with them because my children are over 16 and are therefore too old for permits. How could I go out of Gaza to celebrate Christmas if I can’t take my children? It’s ridiculous.”
Even the process of receiving permission is unreliable, Jaber explained. “My brother is 52 and wanted to go to the West Bank for Christmas, the Israeli authorities just told him that ‘although we know you aren’t a terrorist, we don’t want you in Israel.’ He had worked in Israel for about 25 years.”
For this reason, Ramy considers the Israeli publicity machine to be exploiting the Christian community, “The Israeli government does this to benefit from us, so that they can say that they allow Christians to go to Bethlehem for Christmas, but really we can’t practically go. They exploit us to improve their image.”
Jaber stressed how the Christian community in Gaza suffers at the hands of the Israeli authorities at other times of year too. “Our Greek priest and archbishop face problems getting to Gaza, even though they have diplomatic passports. They have to enter through Israel but sometimes access is denied.”
Ramy studies at the Hamas-run Islamic University, like a number of Christian students in Gaza. He was offered a place at Birzeit University, but he was forced to continue his education in Gaza, as Israel forbade him from studying in the West Bank.
Despite this, he enjoys his time at the Islamic University and says he is exempted from certain classes, like Quran study, to accommodate his beliefs. “All my friends are Muslims. I don’t care if my friends are Christian or not. My Muslim friends here in Gaza also wish me Merry Christmas and come to visit me at Christmas. So what the media says about Arabs and intolerance isn’t true.”
Jaber agrees that the relationship between Muslims and Christians is very good in general, although his church has experienced infrequent targeting. “Fourth months ago the cables for our church bells were cut, but now everything is good. The government told the community to leave us alone and this helped.”
He stressed that such attacks are unpleasant but not representative of Gazan Muslims as a whole, “It’s a minority of people who create problems; most people understand us and believe that we have our religion, and they have theirs.”
Rana Baker is a Palestinian Muslim who studied at the Catholic Holy Family School in Gaza City. “It was a great experience; at school, my Christian classmates fasted Ramadan with us and we celebrated Christmas with them. We had Islamic books and they had Christian books. I never saw any discrimination and, as a student, you were judged solely on your academic merit.”
Rana remarked that, however small the celebrations, the festive season is one that is marked and enjoyed in Gaza, even for Muslims. “I really love Christmas, I like to hang out with my Christian friends at this time of year. I wish them a happy Christmas and they do the same for me on Eid.
“The relationship between Muslims and Christians in Gaza is really good. Palestine is one of the few places left where Muslims and Christians are really close. We are brothers and sisters.”
(palsolidarity.org / 24.12.2011)