BETHLEHEM, West Bank — Even in the best of times, Christmas cheer can sometimes be hard to come by in the Holy Land.
The intermittent violence that has gripped Israel and the Palestinian-ruled West Bank and Gaza Strip since June has scared away busloads of pilgrims, and that is hurting the many Christians whose livelihoods depend on tourism.
Furthermore, despite the Christmas-related festivities that take place in Bethlehem in the Palestinian-ruled West Bank and Nazareth in northern Israel, the fact that local Christians comprise less than 2% of the population is a constant reminder that they are a minority and that their numbers have dwindled dramatically during the past century.
Unlike the West, where Christmas themes dominate children’s programming and prime-time television — and where the newspaper circulars are packed with Christmas sales, in Israel, most of the holiday hype (and there is relatively little) is reserved for Hanukkah. There is much more Christmas cheer in Bethlehem; but even there, the emphasis is on spirituality and low-key by Western standards.
Which is why, Christians in the Holy Land say, it is sometimes difficult to feel the joy of Christmas, but it’s easier to relate to the challenges faced by Joseph, Mary and Jesus.
“Even with all the problems, we try very hard to give the children a joyous and memorable Christmas,” said Veronica Ghattas, a 28-year-old mother of three young children, as she emerged from a family visit to the Church of the Annunciation in Nazareth.
Long Drive to Mass
Ghattas, a resident of Bethlehem, was part of a group of West Bank Catholics who traveled by chartered bus to Nazareth, a two and a half hour drive north, on Dec. 14, in time for Sunday Mass.
Although Israel generally bars Palestinians from entering Israel (with the exception of some workers, businessmen and patients needing hospital care) for security reasons, it issues monthlong visitors’ permits to Palestinian Christians prior to Easter and Christmas.
The permits enable Christians from the West Bank and Gaza to visit their families and holy sites in Israel, including East Jerusalem, which Israel annexed in 1967 and Palestinians claim as the capital of their future state.
“We are so happy to be in Nazareth today and to pray in the church,” Ghattas said after leaving the Church of the Annunciation, a modern church built over the ancient site where, according to Tradition, Mary lived as a child. It was here that Gabriel the Archangel told Mary that she would bear a son, whose name would be Jesus.
‘We Live in a Big Prison’
Bethlehem resident Jocelyn Mukarker, 30, who also came on the trip, said she and her husband, Amer, “try to create the joy of Christmas in our hearts, so our children feel the spirit of Christmas. On Christmas, we will gather together with the entire family. We will attend holiday parties and, of course, Mass.”
“At Christmastime, Arab singers from Israel come to Bethlehem to perform,” Amer Mukarker said. It’s a rare treat, given the fact that Israel’s security barrier — built to prevent Palestinian terror attacks in Israel — essentially keeps West Bank Palestinians from entering Israel and Israel’s Palestinians from visiting the West Bank.
Even though it has been effective in preventing numerous attacks over the past decade, “we live in big prison,” Ghattas said. “Even at holiday time, we’re prohibited from driving our cars into Israel, and it’s not easy to take small children on the bus.”
Nor is the mode of transportation the only issue.
“As Palestinians, we are afraid to enter Israel,” Ghattas said. “We’ve heard from friends who work in Israel that Palestinians are being attacked.”
During the past few months, in the wake of the murder of three Israeli teens, the war in Gaza and several Palestinian paramilitary attacks, Israeli non-governmental organizations have received several reports of Israelis physically or verbally attacking Arabs in the streets of Jerusalem and elsewhere.
In July, Jewish militants killed a Palestinian teen from East Jerusalem, a revenge attack for the Israeli teens’ slaying.
Additionally, some Israeli companies have fired Arab employees, citing security concerns.
Mainstream Israelis have condemned both the attacks and the firings.
Caught in the Middle
Jocelyn Mukarker said the holiday concerts, Christmas market, huge Christmas tree and holiday lights in Bethlehem do not change the fact that “it is very difficult to be a Christian in Palestine.”
She said Christians are caught in the middle.
“The Muslims see us as different. Our society is different, our culture is different, and we don’t fit in,” she said. “At the same time, [Israeli] Jews consider us Arabs. They don’t differentiate between Muslims and Christians.”
Jocelyn recalled the time she and her husband vacationed briefly in Europe.
“That’s where we felt like we fit in,” she said, sounding wistful.
Ghattas said the monthlong visitor’s permit Christians receive is both a blessing and a curse.
“Here in Israel, everything is here, and it’s so free and open. Experiencing freedom makes it that much more difficult when we return home to Bethlehem.”
Watching as one of her children shook a golden holiday bell and elicited smiles from passersby in the streets of Nazareth, Ghattas said her children’s boundless energy and love of all things Christmas “gives me hope for a brighter future.”
She added, “Christmas is all about the children.”
Michele Chabin is the Register’s Middle East correspondent.