It’s Christmas Eve, and it has arrived in the Gaza Strip, the less holy part of the holy land. Palestinian Christians, both in the Gaza Strip and the West Bank, are preparing to have festive celebrations despite the Israeli occupation’s repressive restrictions which have prevented most of them from getting to Bethlehem, the birthplace of Jesus Christ, to celebrate with their fellow Palestinians in the West Bank.
As is usually the case when it comes to the Gaza Strip, Palestinian Christians enjoyed a generous amount of media coverage highlighting a broad range of issues with regard to the situation they are caught up within only a few days, and now hours, before Christmas.
Amusingly, two pieces caught my attention due to the gaping discrepancy between the two narratives—or “pictures” to use a less weighty word— which each piece provides in its coverage of the festive event in the Besieged Gaza Strip.
The first one was posted on my Facebook wall topped with a skeptical question, “Thoughts?” I clicked on the link, and it was the Guardian; the feature was entitled, “Gaza Christians long for days before Hamas cancelled Christmas”. A few hours later, I read another piece entitled “Christmas in Gaza”. This time, it was on the International Solidarity Movement’s (ISM) website. (UPDATE: original post was on Al Akhbar English and reposted by the ISM).
Here are a few quotes from the Guardian’s Phoebe Greenwood’s feature met with quotes from Al Akhabar’ English’s Ruqayya Izzidien’s feature:
There hasn’t been a Christmas tree in Gaza City’s main square since Hamas pushed the Palestinian Authority out of Gaza in 2007 and Christmas is no longer a public holiday.
Personally, I have lived most of my life in Gaza and had never heard anyone speak about Hamas cancelling Christmas celebrations before. Not even a rumour. And, to be honest, we (call us, critics of the government) usually compete each other jumping at every opportunity to criticise the Hamas government in Gaza which is the reason why I raised my eyebrows in wonder at what exactly the source of this can be.
However, and according to the Al Akbar English’s reporter, there have actually been a few Christmas trees in Gaza!
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.
then, the Guardian reports,
Imad Jelda is an Orthodox Christian who runs a youth training centre in Gaza City. With unemployment hovering at 23%, he has seen young Christian men leave to study and work abroad in their droves. “People here do not celebrate Christmas anymore because they are nervous,” Jelda said. “The youth in particular have a fear inside themselves.”
Leaving aside the irrelevance of first, being Christian and leaving Gaza to study and work abroad, and second, the high rates of unemployment and the inability to celebrate Christmas, the reason for this fear inside the Christian youth in Gaza, is bizarrely left for the reader to guess. Can it be the government’s restrictions, maybe?
Well, contrary to what the above passage implies, a passage from Al Akhbar English provides a few reasons for the high unemployment, the youths’ fear, and the inability to celebrate Christmas freely,
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.
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.”
The Guardian’s correspondent then reports the story of Karam Qubrsi who is harassed by a Hamas official for wearing the crucifix and forced to remove it. From experience, I think, the story can definitely be true.
Then, another story of a 30-year-old Christian man who was shot dead, “having been accused by radical elements of proselytising”. I have never heard of this one before, but it also can be true. Denying that there are many religious fundamentalists in Gaza, just like in any other place, doesn’t help in the least.
But is that it? Is Gaza an awfully threatening place for Christians to live in, where Muslims gun down Christians, where they are all the time harassed and repressed by government officials, where they cannot practise their own religion freely?
According to the person interviewed by the Guardian,
“This is not a Christian environment. There are no good universities, there is no opportunity to work, no apartments to rent and so no way we can get married. We have no future here.”
The one interviewed by Izzildien for Al Akhbar English, however, has a different opinion,
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.”
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.
And I will end with a statement by Ramy Abu Jilda, one of the people interviewed in Al Akkbar English’s piece, and his opinion with regard to Western media’s coverage of Gaza’s religious intolerance.
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.”