Like every year, Christians in Gaza feel their isolation most acutely over the festive period.
A nearly decade and a half old Israeli blockade has often left the small community in Gaza bereft during the holidays.
But this year is still different. Not only is the Israeli blockade preventing people from visiting families elsewhere in Palestine or holy sites in Bethlehem or Jerusalem; this time there is also a pandemic keeping movement out of Gaza tightly restricted and necessitating a lockdown at home.
Christmas in Gaza is effectively canceled this year. Churches are closed and celebrations must of necessity be restrained.
It is another blow to an ancient population dating almost as far back as Christianity itself, whose numbers have dwindled over the past decades of Israeli occupation, none more so than in the past 10 years.
Samer Tarazi, 39, is preparing to celebrate at home with his family this year.
Like every year for the past 12, he tried to get a permit from the Israeli military to visit Bethlehem in order to pray and celebrate there.
Like every year since 2007, the media production executive was refused, though this year, he understands that the coronavirus has played its part.
“On the one hand, the Israeli occupation besieges us Christians and deprives many of us from experiencing our religious heritage in Bethlehem,” Tarazi told The Electronic Intifada.
“On the other, the coronavirus has been tough on all of us.”
Nevertheless, he confessed to feeling especially isolated as a Christian in Gaza.
“Gaza’s Christians feel alien to fellow Christians around the world. If Christians were prevented from visiting a church in any country in the world, they would protest, they would not accept. We have been deprived for years.”
Tarazi has visited Bethlehem – only about 75 kilometers away – just three times in his life. The last was in 2007.
The West Bank town is not just a place of pilgrimage for him; he has a lot of extended family there and many friends.
Last year, the Israeli military announced it would issue several hundred permits for Gaza’s Christians to travel at Christmas, and Tarazi and his family duly applied.
In the end, however, only the young and the old were allowed travel. Out of 800 applications, slightly more than 300 permits were issued.
Both Tarazi and his spouse were denied permits, though their three children, aged 4 to 12, had permits issued.
“How can my children travel without their parents?” he asked.
Kamel Ayyad is the director of public relations at the Church of Saint Porphyrius in Gaza – named after a fifth century bishop of Gaza.
The coronavirus pandemic is causing havoc in the impoverished and besieged Gaza Strip, where church services and communal prayer has been banned since August.
And Kamel, 48, said he, his spouse and three children had been looking forward to an end to the pandemic and had hoped to visit friends and relatives in Bethlehem and Jerusalem over the holiday period.
His last visit was for Christmas in 2016. But since then, the Israeli military has denied him permits to travel for “security reasons,” he said.
“We [Christians] and Muslims in Gaza suffer the same fate,” he told The Electronic Intifada. “Muslims in Gaza are not allowed to visit al-Aqsa Mosque to perform prayers nor to visit the Islamic religious monuments.”
Like Muslims, Kamel continued, “Gaza’s Christians are also deprived from visiting Christian religious places. Even when the coronavirus crisis is over, we will go back to the same situation”.
He also lamented the decline in numbers of Gaza’s Christians, a fact he put down to the overall situation in Gaza, which has some of the world’s highest unemployment and poverty rates, a direct consequence of Israel’s blockade.
Before the second intifada started in 2000, he remembered a festive Christmas atmosphere in Gaza where every year a Christmas tree was lit up in the Square of the Unknown Soldier.
Yasser Arafat, the late Palestinian leader, Kamel said, was particular about celebrating Christmas every year with the local community.
Fuad Ayyad, 34, last visited Bethlehem in 2006. Since then, he has been deemed a “security threat” and, despite repeated attempts, never been granted a travel permit by the Israeli military.
This year, he and his mother Siham, 77, are planning to have a quiet Christmas at home, just the two of them, for the first time.
“This year is the hardest because of the virus,” Fuad, who is unemployed, told The Electronic Intifada. “But before, it was almost as bad. Israel just kept making flimsy excuses for not allowing us to travel. Neither my mother nor I belong to any faction. We are peaceful people.”
Grace Nicola, 30, has been banned from traveling to Bethlehem for the last nine years. This year, he lost his work importing electronic goods due to the economic conditions in Gaza.
He had been looking forward to Christmas at the Latin Monastery in Gaza City.
Now he is left with just the hope that things will improve next year.
“I miss my church. I miss my community. I miss Bethlehem,” Nicola told The Electronic Intifada.
The coronavirus has taken most of that from him, he said, but even once the pandemic is finished, he said, any dreams to pray in Jerusalem or Bethlehem are still out of his hands.
“I live in Gaza. My dreams depend on the Israeli government.”
Amjad Ayman Yaghi is a journalist based in Gaza.