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OPINION / Palestine

A Jerusalem Christmas

Ethnic cleansing and occupation have marked my Christmases in Jerusalem for decades.

by Samia Khoury

Christmas has always been a very special and meaningful holiday season for Palestinian Christians. In fact, it is almost like a national holiday in which many Muslims partake, especially in Jerusalem, Bethlehem, Ramallah and Nazareth, where most of the Christians and church schools are located.

Those schools serve both communities, so it is not surprising that many of the students and their families are aware of the festivities of the Christmas holidays. Many children join in decorating Christmas trees, singing carols and exchanging gifts. 

While Bethlehem is where Jesus Christ was born, it is Jerusalem that is at the heart of Christianity. I remember my late father used to always dream of Jerusalem being the spiritual capital of the world since it is physically almost in the centre of the world, and because of its significance to all three faiths, Judaism, Christianity and Islam. And most probably that was the reason that the UN partition scheme of Palestine left Jerusalem as a "separate entity" at that time, to be governed by a special international regime.

Even as a young girl when I was still in boarding school in Birzeit, spending the day in Jerusalem was always a special experience. There was no West or East Jerusalem back then. And there were no residence and travel restrictions, so Palestinian Christians from all over flocked to Jerusalem and Bethlehem for Christmas, along with foreign pilgrims.

This artificial division between East and West emerged only after 1948. That year started with the bombing of the Semiramis Hotel in the western part of the city by the Haganah, the Jewish militia that eventually founded the Israeli military. The bombing killed more than 20 people, including members of the Christian family who owned the hotel. This act of terror darkened Orthodox Christmas, celebrated on January 7.

Jewish Haganah troops pass by the ruins of the Semiramis hotel on May 6, 1948 [File: AP]

In April that year, two Jewish militias entered the Palestinian village of Deir Yaseen, near the western part of Jerusalem, and massacred hundreds, including women and children. In the aftermath of the massacre, Jewish forces went from house to house in western Jerusalem, which was mostly inhabited by Palestinians and which was where we were living at that time, ordering people to leave, lest they face the same fate as the residents of Deir Yaseen.

In the following months, the Palestinian population was either evicted at gunpoint or left out of fear. In December 1948, we celebrated our last Christmas with our extended family in western Jerusalem, before we, too, had to leave. The western part of the city became an entity of its own - the ethnically cleansed "West Jerusalem". 

The eastern part of the city was what remained for us Palestinians. I was married in 1960 there and lived in a small flat where both our children were born and celebrated their first Christmases. In 1964 we moved to a new house which my late husband built on top of a mountain in Beit Hanina, a suburb north of Jerusalem. Christmas was always a special occasion for the family, and after we moved to our new home, it became a tradition to have the extended family over for the holidays.

The year 1967 brought another tragedy for us. Eastern Jerusalem, along with the West Bank and the Gaza Strip, fell under Israeli occupation. And in no time the Israelis annexed "East Jerusalem" to join it with "West Jerusalem" and claimed it to be the united eternal capital of the Jewish state of Israel, in defiance of all UN resolutions. 

Christian Arabs, carrying a huge cross, reach the third Station of the Cross in Jerusalem on March 26, 1948 [File: AP]

That December 25, I remember being naively hopeful. The UN had just unanimously adopted Resolution 242 a month earlier, stipulating that Israeli forces have to withdraw from the territories they occupied during the war.

I always thought of that period as the honeymoon period of the occupation which soon came to an end. And it did. Full-blown Israeli occupation became a reality in all of Jerusalem - a reality in which my children had to grow up.

The occupation became gradually unbearable. In December 1987 the first Intifada broke out, and our youth took to the streets. The following year, my son was arrested for recording Intifada music. He spent six months in detention and was released just days before Christmas. I was incredibly happy but not completely relieved. There was barely a family, Christian or Muslim, that was not affected by what was going on.

By then we had realised that Israel could get away with all its violations of UN resolutions and international law because it had the full support of the US to shield it against international condemnation.

This year, as we were getting ready for Christmas and looking forward to the older grandchildren coming home for the occasion, while the younger ones take their exams, we were "blessed" by a unique Christmas gift from Mr Donald Trump

If Trump's statement on Jerusalem is the overture for that peace plan, may God help us all as we face much worse days to come.

 

Defying the UN resolution deeming the annexation of Jerusalem illegal, which the US itself has never recognised, Mr Trump saw it fit to stand in front of his Christmas tree at the White House and declare Jerusalem the capital of the State of Israel. 

He claimed that he was simply delivering what he had promised during his campaign. For us, this was yet another disaster.

The first thing that came to my mind was, "What an idiot! Does he realise what the reaction to this would be?" But then I thought of the Arabic saying: When one fool drops a key in a well, it takes a hundred wise men to figure out how to take it out. 

Of course, my immediate concern was the youth because I was so sure they would react by protesting on the streets. I wished only that the Israeli army would leave them in peace for it is their legal right to protest such an injustice. 

In the end, Trump's announcement is more of the same for us. It comes after Israel's decades-long efforts to ethnically cleanse Jerusalem of Palestinians and claim it as its capital. Through racist residency laws, demolitions, evictions and violence, the Israeli government has aimed to overhaul the demography of the once Palestinian-majority city. The Israeli authorities now aim to limit the number of Palestinians to 12 percent of the population.

So here we are. The lights of Bethlehem's Christmas tree, which were lit just a few days before Mr Trump's announcement, had to be turned off. The festive mood has been extinguished, and the whole region has been set on fire.

The Christmas tree lighting ceremony outside the Church of the Nativity in Bethlehem was held this year on December 2 [Reuters/Mussa Qawasma]

But in defiance we stand together, Christians and Muslims, to defend our rights in our city. We want very much to celebrate Christmas, and we do not want Mr Trump to spoil it for us. 

But we cannot but mourn with all the families whose children have been shot or taken to jail during the protests against this grave injustice. We have been hearing about the "ultimate deal" Mr Trump and his team are working on. If Trump's statement on Jerusalem is the overture for that peace plan, may God help us all as we face much worse days to come.  

Most of the younger generation in the West Bank have never had the privilege of visiting Jerusalem and praying in its churches or its mosques, yet they feel an affinity to their Holy City. They are still holding on to hope that justice and peace will eventually prevail and Jerusalem will be a city free of occupation one day.

The views expressed in this article are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera's editorial policy.


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