Bankrupt Santa Claus in Gaza!
GAZA CITY- The bulky red sack being held in the hands of Santa Claus is trembling as he passes through the war-torn district of Shejaiya, passing by the ruins of homes that were knocked down during last summer’s heated Israeli assault on Gaza and that have yet to be rebuilt.
Despite the scenes of chaos and destruction that surrounds him "Christmas is back, anyway" says Santa Claus triumphantly as he stands on the ruins of demolished homes with his flowers and ringing bells to signal his arrival to the children.
He has just reached his destination, here in east of Gaza City and wants to interact with all of the children who survived the war and bring them a bit of seasonal cheer.
"Baba Noel (Father Christmas) is here for the poor, the injured and those maimed in the war. I'm here to shake hands with everyone!" he says.
This week, an estimated 1,500 Christian Palestinians in Gaza, 85% of whom are Greek Orthodox, are marking Christmas in four main churches. But this year’s Gaza Christmas is not like anywhere else. It comes some months after the war, and Palestinian Christians don’t find it easy to celebrate while Gaza is still mourning its dead.
"I have restricted our celebrating this year to only church services and Christmas trees at home. We can’t possibly celebrate when our Muslim brothers are in so much pain" says Ibrahim Jahshan, a 30 year old Gaza-based Christian.
The Patriarch of Jerusalem Fouad Twal visited Gaza this week for mass, and to see Gaza's Christians.
"Christmas is the holiday of peace and love. We hope that everyone will live in peace. Always peace comes with justice, there is no peace that comes by force or fighting. Only with justice can we live in peace. From Gaza we ask the whole world to feel with us and look to our situation. Do not forget Gaza," said Fouad Twal.
In Gaza City, some shops have kept to the old traditions of setting up Christmas trees and displaying Christmas gifts for sale. The shop keeper in the city center in Remal says "we need to try to forget the war and live a moment of joy."
Nevertheless, as he cleans off the dust that has settled on the red Christmas bags he looks down the street and acknowledges that even Gaza’s Christian communities are not buying as they have in other years. Jahshan says as a Palestinian Christian he enjoys his life in Gaza and has never felt any form of oppression.
"We are united by one nation, one land, one blood" he says, adding that "when the war started over the summer, both Christians and Muslims went to donate blood to hospitals."
During the war, hundreds of homeless Muslim families took part in the funeral procession of Jalila Ayyad, an elderly Christian woman killed who had been sitting at home when an Israeli airstrike hit her home in Gaza City.
Santa Claus says he chose Shejaiya, a place that has no Christians but was worst affected in the summer assault, because he wants to deliver a message of hope to the residents east of Gaza City.
"We are all under siege - Christians and Muslims - both our bodies and graveyards were hit during the war," he says.
Since 2004 Palestinian Muslim and Christians have been gathering together to save 50 NIS (New Israeli Shekels) (equivalent to approx £8.21) at the end of each month to be used in September each year instead of December. This year Santa Claus acknowledged that they have used what they have saved in Christmas gift money to buy books and schooling kits for homeless children who started school in September.
"So, we have very little to offer this Christmas, but can share love and peace with our Muslim fellows" he says as he walks to deliver Gaza-grown carnations to small children and women sitting on the ruins of their demolished homes.
A few days ago, Israel granted around 500 permits to Palestinian Christians from Gaza to allow them to travel from Gaza to the West Bank, to enable them to visit the birth city of Jesus, Bethlehem, and to see relatives and attend the traditional midnight mass. However, Christians under the age of 35 feel upset that they have not been given permission to leave the Strip to take part in the celebrations.
Maya, 23, says her parents have been given permission to travel, but she has to stay behind with her younger brother as she has not been granted exit permit as a result of the Israeli age restrictions.
Muslim children continue to be amazed by the jolly red-suited guest making the rounds in their destroyed neighborhoods. In August, UNICEF in Gaza says at least 370,000 Gaza children were in need of psychological counseling after the summer's 51 day war, which killed over 2,200 Palestinians and injured 11,000 of which the majority are children, according to United Nations.
"For those who want to learn the true meaning of co-existence between Christians and Muslims, Gaza is the perfect example," says Jahshan while decorating his Christmas tree and sitting by his 4 month old baby and wife.
Before Santa makes his way to the children of the next neighbourhood he reminds us that "this is the time for the world to remember where the origins of Christmas come from". If Jesus was alive today, he says, he could be any one of the Gaza Christians who are not allowed to make it to Bethlehem. Where's the Christmas spirit in the Holy Land when you can say that?