Christmas without lustre in the Holy Land

Friday 18/12/2015
Palestinian Muslims and Christians attend the annual Christmas March in Ramallah, dedicated this year to the Palestinians who were killed in violence with Israel since early October. (Photo credit: Mohammed Farraj)

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.