Christmas without lustre in the Holy Land
Ramallah - Christmas celebrations in the Holy Land have been cancelled. There will be no street marches with Santa Claus in the walled Old City of Jerusalem and no fireworks or Christmas hymns and carols sung in Bethlehem where Jesus was born.
Christmas decorations, which usually light many streets in Arab East Jerusalem and the West Bank, are almost non-existent. The killing of at least 120 Palestinians in a wave of violence with the Israeli forces, spurred by Palestinian knife attacks, the failure to restart peace talks with Israel and the gloomy fate of Palestinian statehood have left no room for joy.
Thus, Christmas celebrations were cancelled, said Musa Hadid, head of the Ramallah Municipality.
“It’s a message to the whole world that Palestine is wounded and is unable to celebrate the birth of Jesus unlike the rest of the world,” Hadid said.
Hadid’s municipality and the Ramallah Council of Churches dedicated Christmas 2015 to the memory of Palestinians killed by the Israeli Army since the beginning of October.
According to the Palestinian Ministry of Health, at least 120 Palestinians, including 25 children and five women, have been killed in that period in unrest many Palestinians say was caused by presumed attempts by Israel’s government to allow Jewish prayers at al-Aqsa, Islam’s third holiest shrine. A series of stabbings, shootings and car rammings by Palestinians has killed 19 Israelis and a US citizen.
In Ramallah, the spirit of the season is lacking. A 6-metre Christmas tree, which is traditionally decorated and lit in a festive musical celebration every year, has been left bare in a main city square. There are no decorations. There are no lights.
Ramallah’s streets were not decorated either as an expression of solidarity with the families who are waiting for the Israeli government to return the bodies of their children to be buried. Israel is holding the bodies of more than 50 Palestinians, a move widely seen as punishment.
The city’s traditional march, in which hundreds of Palestinian students walk Ramallah’s streets playing music, was led by families holding Palestinian flags and candles. With scouts playing drums only, they proceeded to the square and lit torches symbolising justice and truth.
In Jerusalem, street marches with Santa Claus and other celebrations in the Old City were cancelled.
In Bethlehem, an ornate Christmas tree was decorated and lit in a low-key celebration but there were no fireworks or Christmas songs performed by church choirs as is tradition.
The number of Western pilgrims during the season to the Holy Land has dwindled because of the threat of violence.
Christians make up approximately 2% of the West Bank’s population of 2.5 million. There’s an additional 200,000-person Christian community among Israel’s Palestinian population, known as 1948 Palestinians, or Arab-Israelis.
Jerusalem’s Grand Mufti Sheikh Muhammad Hussein said the holiday coincides with the birthday of Prophet Mohammad, which falls on Christmas Eve in 2015.
“It’s important to celebrate the memory of the two great prophets but it’s hard for Palestinians to enjoy these times with many youth losing their lives because of the Israeli occupation,” Hussein said.
He said Palestinians “enjoy close ties, regardless of their faith”.
Kareem, a 15-year-old Muslim, and his Christian friend Ameer are a good example of such a solid existence. They live in Hamas-ruled Gaza where Christians make up about 1% — 1,800 people — of the Strip’s overall population.
There are usually no Christmas celebrations in Gaza because of Hamas’s hard-line teachings. Some people adorn Christmas trees inside their homes but the decorations can barely be seen through windows.
Kareem, who wanted Christmas to be special for his long-time friend, arranged for Muslim neighbours — boys and girls — in their western Gaza neighbourhood of Remal to go to Ameer’s house when he saw a Christmas tree taken in on December 5th.
“I want to see him happy. It’s a very special night to all of us,” Kareem said while hanging an ornament on Ameer’s Christmas tree.
He said the brewing tension and violence in Palestinian areas should not stand in the way of celebrating Christmas.
Gaza’s Christian community dropped by more than half in the past decade, mainly because of wars, a crippling Israeli siege and Hamas’s 2007 violent takeover of the strip from the moderate Palestinian Authority in charge of the West Bank.
Gaza’s Christians earned respect when dozens of Muslim families were given refuge at the Orthodox Church in the Old Gaza City after fleeing homes destroyed in Israel’s war in July 2014.
“Christian and Muslim Palestinians share the same hopes and dreams. The Israeli occupation doesn’t differentiate between a Christian and a Muslim, a church or a mosque. We’re proud of the unique relationship we have in Palestine and we hope the world would learn to accept the other like we do in Palestine,” Hussein said.