Christmas was sad, bleak, here, not for me on a personal level, but for fatigued Palestinian Christians denied every joy of celebrations because of the siege and the Israeli military occupation of Gaza. At Gaza’s Catholic church, the priest, Father Manuel Musallam, led a sad congregation in a Christmas Eve service which barely feigned joy. An attractive false Christmas tree, a manger scene, and a table dressed in white linen and adorned with seasonal red and greens didn’t manage to add cheer to the celebrants.Most couldn’t even watch the Bethlehem celebrations on tv because of power cuts or poverty. What do they have to celebrate? It wasn’t the absence of incense, nor certainly the lack of commercialism and shops selling trinkets, that left Christmas gasping and Christians grim in Gaza.
It was the siege.
Father Manuel’s 6 pm Christmas Eve service –he’d cancelled midnight mass, protesting the siege, the suffering of the people of Gaza, and the effective cancellation of Christmas in Gaza anyway – was lethargic.It was a desperate plea from a priest who has seen too many painful Christmases in Gaza and whose congregation has reached their breaking point. He pled with, commanded, his congregation to remain strong, remain Palestinian although separated from their holy places and, for some, even from their families.
He reminded them of their legitimate right to Jerusalem, to Bethlehem, to dignity, life, celebration.He reprimanded any who had given up: “the Christian who doesn’t shout ‘no’ to death and ‘yes’ to life is not Christian.We must reject the injustice, the crimes oppressing us.This isn’t about politics, this is about life.”
Later, in a tv interview, Father Manuel declared to a wider audience: “We are dying, slowly dying, in Gaza.1.5 million Christian and Muslim Palestinians are facing the same death: denied food, denied medicines, denied cooking gas…” A gnawing death.
The reporter mentioned the 230 Gazan Palestinians who were supposed to have been issued permits to travel to Jerusalem to worship (over 800 applied). A journalist here fills me in on the bits and parts of families who received permits: “Most of the permit-holders and incomplete families: the children but not the parents, the grandparents but not the family…So in the end, many won’t try to use their permits.”Who would send their children to celebrate alone?Who would leave their children alone while they go celebrate in Jerusalem? So the permits –if they were indeed even honoured –were a meaningless game of rhetoric.
Back in Manuel’s church, he urges prayers for Christians martyred, and for Muslims martyred, and reminds listeners of the over 11,000 political prisoners in Israeli jails.
“Christmas night, how joyful…” The listless, somber singing left me overwhelmed and sad, wondering how these people continue to survive and what hope there is.
“Peace and joy are inside,” Father Manuel confided, and while I don’t know how much joy there is these days, there is still something strong, defiant, lasting, inside Palestinians, something which inspires and amazes time and again.
From the service, friends and I rushed to join a family who’d invited us for dinner.We were half an hour late, they were gracious and welcoming.Muslim, the family knew we celebrated Christmas and had thoughtfully decorated a Christmas tree, flashing coloured lights strewn behind on fishing netting.
M.’s passion is sailing, and we spend the next hour discussing his attempts to bring water sports to Gaza’s youths.He dreams of setting up a sailing club, of teaching these youths living on the sea how to enjoy the sea.His efforts having been largely hampered by Israel’s control of Gaza’s waters (although by agreements signed by Israel, Palestinians have the right to fish 20 miles of Gaza’s coast), Israel’s restrictions on activities in the sea, and of course by the unending siege.
M. pulled out a medium-sized hardcover book and explained, “This cost me $100. It was sent DHL by the International Sailing Federation three months ago. I just received it yesterday: Israel was holding it for ‘security’ reasons.Before they would allow the book through, and although the Sailing Federation had paid the DHL fees, Israeli authorities told me I had to pay for Israel’s storage of the book. $100.”His story is reminiscent of those of Gazan traders whose goods lie dormant on the Israeli side, not allowed into Gaza by Israeli authorities, accumulating costly bills for storage. If the goods are perishable foods, the investment is lost.
M. is comfortably well-off, and his home and food reflect this.Yet he and his family are humble, generous with others, and treat guests like royalty.We sit down to the best Christmas dinner I’ve had, although the variety is sparse: rice-stuffed grape leaves, saffron rice with roasted almonds, cooked spinach, salad, roasted eggplant dip, olives, home-squeezed lemonade with mint.Everything is from within Gaza, though there are a startling number of people who can no longer afford such treats like spinach, salads, and nuts, let alone meat, milk, fruits…
His family doesn’t suffer like those 80% living below the poverty line, dependent on food-aid, hand-outs which in recent weeks have been repeatedly banned from Gaza, borders sealed.[The UN has had to announce suspension of food aid at various times in the last 2 months due to Israel’s closure of the crossings into Gaza: for 3 days in November no food aid was given to the 750,000 refugees dependent on it; on December 10, all flour and wheat stocks in UN warehouses were depleted; and on December 18 the UN again stopped food aid distribution.One UN representative, Chris Gunness, cites “people picking through the rubbish like this looking for things to eat,” and goes on to call the situation “not a humanitarian crisis. This is a political crisis of choice with dire humanitarian consequences.” John Ging, the director of UNRWA in Gaza, adds “We’re living hand to mouth,” and calls the recent suspension of food-aid in Gaza ‘unprecedented’.]
Christmas morning, I leave the apartment to go visit a journalist friend at Ramattan news. I’m just out the door when S, my neighbour, calls me in for tea. His nargila is bubbling away, and in the little metal box with hot coals for the tobacco water pipe, little nuggets are charring and splitting, with a hiss. As he plucks a hot chestnut from the coals and peels it for me, I try to explain, in limited Arabic, about a song and open (nargila coal) fires and Christmas.They are steaming, nutty, tasty.S. hears my raspy voice and goes to fix a herbal infusion.“I called you two nights ago,” he chides.“L. said you were sick, but I wanted to make you tea,” he goes on.I explain we’ve run out of cooking gas and I was miserable and feverish, with chills, and after a futile attempt at sitting in luke-warm bathwater, I’d piled under blankets and slept it off. “You should have knocked, asked me to make you tea,” he reprimands.
It’s a nice surprise, this unexpected Christmas morning visit.I ask if he’d watched Bethlehem on tv the night before –he’s exiled from the holy city, separated from wife and children for 7 years now.He grins, sad-eyed. “Fish carahaba,” he says. No electricity.
It’s rainy, the sea is turbulent with waves, the air fresh.Despite myself, I smoke apple-scented nargila and soothe my throat with the honeyed tea. I watch S. as he teases his friend’s one-year-old girl on the phone, goading her to make baby sounds. His voice is filled with adoration, teasing the child.His own kids are a phone call away.
Later on Christmas Day, I pass by long lines, people waiting to buy –not pander –a bag of bread. Inside Al Jalal bakery, one of the few bakeries still open, I watched the dismay of long-waiting customers as the owner announces the bread has run out.A bakery employee explainsto me that the amount of wheat, thus flour, in the Strip doesn’t allow bakeries to function normally.Over half have closed, and those still open operate on rations.
The government gives us 5000 kilos of flour daily,” he explains.“That’s enough for 2,000 families, based on a one-bag limit.” Each sack of bread contains 50 pieces, which for an average family of 10, may last just a few days.
Desperation and fatigue on the faces of those lined up; exasperation when the announcement is made.The majority will not have cooking gas, and their remaining staple, bread, is now unavailable. How will they feed their families? they wonder.
I go later to meet some academic activist friends.Haidar tells us how he needs to get out of Gaza, to breathe, to see a different life.“I’ve been back here for 3 years now,” he explains. “I need out.” He revisits his ordeal at the Rafah crossing 6 months ago, when he’d tried to cross into Egypt to go on to South Africa to visit his family.
“It was a terrible experience.You wouldn’t wish it on your enemy.The worst part was when I saw the ambulances waiting, waiting.They were carrying cancer patients,” he recalls. “After I eventually fainted, I decided to leave.My friend tried to persuade me to stay, saying ‘they’re just about to let us through,’ but I’d had enough.The poor guy was there the rest of the day and all the next day before he, too, returned to Gaza.”
I leave, to go visit Hatem’s family.After questioning me non-stop on my impressions of Gaza and reasons for coming here, they realize I’ve lost my voice and set about with home remedies.I’m made to swallow a mouthful of ginger powder, keeping it in the inflamed area of my throat, while the questions start anew.
The subject of Muslims and Christians friendship comes up again.
Hatem tells me that Father Manuel’s school holds 1300 students, just 100 of whom are Christians.He goes on to tell me of how his family usually shares in their Christian neighbours’ celebrations, joining them for dinner and bringing gifts.“We’ve done that every year since I was a kid,” he tells me. “This year, though, they are in Jordan.Their son went there to marry, and they’ve been stuck outside of Gaza since.They did try to return, spending a couple of months in Al Arish near the Rafah border, but eventually gave up and returned to Jordan.It’s strange to not be celebrating with them this year,” he concludes.
I finally leave and go back to the apartment, to be called in again by S.Expecting tea, I’m surprised when he comes out with steaming bowls of soup: canned peas, corn, carrots, and pasta.It’s hot and delicious, and is swiftly followed by un-sugared, strong, spiced Arabic coffee.Then, to my surprise, S brings out the Christmas treats: 2 apples, 2 bananas.I haven’t seen bananas for a month and a half, though they’re abundant in neighbouring Egypt.
“I saw them at the vegetable market today.The apples were 20 shekels (~$5) a kilo, but I believe that if you have the money, spend it.You never know if you’ll be around tomorrow.” Especially in Palestine.
As my voice cracks again, he returns to the kitchen to make another tea infusion, spooning a glob of honey in. It soothes my throat again, and rounds off a very strange, sad, Christmas filled with love, friendship, inspiration, desperation. My emotions are conflicted, warmed by the friendship I’ve received, by the (daily) kindness of Palestinians on the streets, by random text messages from Muslim friends wishing me a Merry Christmas…but very troubled by the continuing reality of a siege which most people now agree has turned Gaza into a concentration camp.
“While families around the world celebrate Christmas, gathering around tables of abundance, Gaza parents like me will not even be able provide bread for their children unless Israel opens the commercial crossings to Gaza from the outside world.” “Imagine that today in Gaza, acquiring a simple package of bread requires getting up at daybreak, purchasing a gallon of expensive gas because it is smuggled in from Egypt, and that it will take two or three hours to complete the task!”“According to Abdel Naser al-Ajrami, head of the bakers association in Gaza, more than 27 bakeries out of a total of 47 in Gaza City have been shut down completely due to a lack of cooking gas and wheat, as Israel has sealed the commercial border crossings for almost two months now.
Al-Ajrami explained yesterday that sufficient quantities will be distributed to bakeries in the next three days, adding that there have been relentless efforts by officials of the ruling Hamas government to ensure that the necessary amounts cooking gas and wheat are supplied throughout Gaza.”
— Rami Almeghari