Christmas in Gaza
by Ruqaya Izzidien
Al Akhbar English
25 December 2011
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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.”
Raw memories of war
by Yousef M Aljamal
Gaza, 26 December 2011
Simply put, I hate war. My youngest sister hates war too. But, she will
never forget the sounds of American-made F16s overhead as they bombarded
Gaza’s only power plant reducing it to the ashes. It happened close to our
house. I will not forget her screaming above the sounds of the falling
Palestinians believe in peace, but not the so-called “peace process”
constantly talked about in the news outlets. Israeli Prime Minister
Netanyahu always preaches to us about how to make peace, but it is only
talk. There is no peace without justice. The two cannot be separated. Israel
thinks peace can be made whilst subjecting us to apartheid conditions, but
we reject that.
On the very day of Israel’s attack on Gaza, I was doing some reading for my
final exams. Some 60 bombs struck the Hamas-run police stations around
Gaza. The electricity went off as the bombs rained down. I looked for news
in people’s eyes, but there was nothing to see except shock and horror. The
number of dead was overwhelming. The smell of death was all around us, and
those of us still alive, knew that we would be mourning the loss of friends,
neighbours and relatives. I knew 40 of the dead.
To the world though, they are nameless, merely numbers. It hurts deeply
when my people are referred to as numbers.
Just recently, Mustafa Al-Tamimi was murdered in Al-Nabi Saleh village as he
was protesting Israel’s land confiscations, but no one talked about how he
was brutally murdered, despite his death having been captured on film and
photographed. Nor did anyone talked about his grieving sister begging to
see him. Mustafa is just another number of Palestinians killed protesting
Israel’s brutal occupation.
It is very painful to know that some 1500 people, whose lives were claimed
by Israel’s war on Gaza, are simply added to the many others killed since
Israel began its systematic takeover of Palestine in its 63 years of
We are not numbers. We are stories. We are feelings.
We are Iman Hijjo being breast fed in her mother’s arms as the bomb tore her
small innocent smile apart. We are Mohammed Al-Durra bleeding from an
Israeli bullet as his dad tried to protect him with his arms. We are the
Al-Samouni family who were erased after soldiers promised to spare them if
they moved into a tiny room. We are the steps of millions of refugees who
were forced to leave their homeland, dispossessed and displaced until now.
We are not numbers, sir, madam, people of the world.
The dead were wrapped in white shrouds and draped with Palestine’s flags;
the dead were buried sorrowfully to rest in peace. And the living in Gaza
began to remake their lives, the painful memories ever present. Three years
later nothing has changed, except more dead, one here, five there and all of
us imprisoned waiting for the peace that never comes.
This third anniversary of Israel’s war on Gaza, Palestinians are taking to
the streets to call for the wall of silence to be broken. If the world
wants peace as much as we want peace, then give us peace with justice.
Yousef blogs at http://yeljamal.wordpress.com/