Israel’s military frequently poses as a humanitarian organization.
So it came as little surprise that it recently sought to turn an announcement about Christmas celebrations into a goodwill gesture.
In reality, the announcement reinforced what every Palestinian knows: Israel dictates what they can and cannot do. For Christians, that includes deciding where they spend Christmas.
If Israel keeps its word, up to 500 Christians living in Gaza may visit the West Bank, which is also under Israeli military occupation. They can then spend part of the festive season in Bethlehem, where Jesus Christ is believed to have been born.
The Israeli announcement – similar to ones made in previous years – is far from altruistic.
Because a limit is placed on the number of people who may travel to Bethlehem, such announcements have the effect that family members either spend Christmas apart from each other or that trips to Bethlehem do not go ahead.
“It is unusual for a whole family to get approval [for traveling to Bethlehem],” said Kamel Ayyad, a spokesperson for the Church of Saint Porphyrius in Gaza. “Sometimes, the Israeli authorities will only grant approval to one or two members of a family. That means the family is forced to cancel their travel plans.”
At more than 700, the number of applications for travel permits quickly exceeded the quota set by Israel.
“Everyone should be granted the permit,” said Ayyad. “We all have the right to freedom of movement. And freedom of worship.”
Christmas in Gaza tends to be subdued. Last year, it was effectively canceled because of the COVID-19 pandemic.
Palestinian Christians have been long placed under considerable strain by the occupation. Many have grown so frustrated with Israel’s relentless brutality that they have emigrated.
In Gaza, the number of Christians has fallen from approximately 3,000 in 2010 to only around 1,000 now.
Hani Farah, a prominent figure in the YMCA’s Gaza branch, is among those who have applied for a permit to visit Bethlehem. He is still waiting to hear whether or not his application is successful.
“I love to pray at the Church of the Nativity [in Bethlehem],” he said. “It has a special feeling.”
Farah pointed out that the last two years have been extremely stressful due to both the pandemic and a major Israeli attack. He is hoping that all of his family will be permitted to visit Bethlehem this Christmas.
“We need this holiday,” he said.
Bethlehem is just 75 kilometers from Gaza. Accessing the city should be relatively easy with the benefit of modern transportation.
Yet to have any chance of reaching Bethlehem, it is first necessary to exit Erez, a checkpoint separating Gaza and Israel.
“We love life”
The task of deciding who may leave Erez has been assigned to Israel’s Coordinator of Government Activities in the Territories (COGAT). That body is now headed by a general named Ghasan Alyan.
He used to be a commander of the Golani Brigade, an elite unit within Israel’s military.
Led by Alyan, the Golani Brigade committed a massacre in the Shujaiya neighborhood of Gaza City during July 2014. Some 55 Palestinian civilians – 19 of them children – were killed in that massacre.
This means that decisions about how Gaza’s people may live their lives are rubber stamped by a man who has committed war crimes in Gaza. Far from being punished, Alyan has been promoted.
Khader Tarazi, 23, has visited Bethlehem just once – when he was a small child. His memories of the trip are patchy, though joyful.
“Every year I submit an application for a permit,” he said. “But it is rejected for reasons that are not known to me.”
Israel typically rejects most requests for permits to visit Bethlehem at Christmas. In 2019, around 800 requests were made from Christians in Gaza; Israel granted slightly more than 300 permits.
While Gaza may not be synonymous with Christmas cheer, those spending the festive season here try their best to have a good time.
Florence Khouri was one of the guests at a party earlier this month, organized by the YMCA in Gaza City.
“Turning on the Christmas tree lights has a special meaning in Gaza,” she said. “We love life despite all the darkness.”
Fedaa al-Qedra is a journalist in Gaza.