Ellen al-Salfiti could not wait to grow up and go to high school. However, on this day she hated her 16 years of age. The application she submitted on Dec. 9 to obtain a permit to celebrate Christmas in the cities of Ramallah and Bethlehem was declined by the Israeli authorities.
According to the Israeli conditions, no Palestinian Christians from the Gaza Strip — whether male or female — are allowed to enter the West Bank, except for those who are under the age of 16 or above the age of 35.
“I feel sad. There’s nothing for me to do here. We can see the joy of Christmas on television, but the true meaning of this holy day can only be felt in Ramallah and Bethlehem. There is nothing in Gaza. I feel so sad because I am now one year older. I cried when I learned that my permit was declined. If I were still one year younger, I would have been able to visit Bethlehem and the Church of the Nativity,” she said.
Ellen has been accustomed to visiting the city of Bethlehem with her mother every year to celebrate Christmas with the Orthodox Church on Jan. 7. However, this year Ellen’s permit was declined by the Israeli authorities, and her mother stayed with her in Gaza.
“You cannot feel the spirit of Christmas here, while the real holiday is there in Bethlehem. There, decorated trees are everywhere, scouts singing Christmas carols, and tourists from all over the world wandering the streets. It has been ages since the last time we celebrated Christmas openly in Gaza. Today, we spend the holiday praying, visiting relatives only to return home to sleep. I did not even make any pastries this holiday,” said Ellen’s mother, Faten al-Salfiti, who is 53 years old.
Faten misses her son, who left Gaza for Europe. She said that he calls her all the time, especially now with the holidays approaching. He wishes that they were with him so that they could celebrate Christmas all together. Faten pointed to the Christmas tree standing in the corner of her living room, saying that “we see it as a symbol, which is the only reminder of the festive season.”
Faten’s husband, Nabil al-Salfiti, who is 61 years old, shares the same opinion as his wife. “The joy of the holiday has changed, and so did Gaza. The spirit of Christmas is no longer the same as it used be during our childhood in Gaza,” he said.
He added that “there were about 3,000 Christians in Gaza. Today, they are fewer than 1,500. Most of them have left for the West Bank, Europe or Canada, due to the dire political situation, the high cost of living and deteriorating conditions.”
The Last Christmas Tree in 1999
The Islamic government led by Hamas has been controlling the Gaza Strip since 2006, when the Islamic movement won the elections. Thus, it is quite difficult to notice the festive atmosphere in Gaza, as stores do not sell Christmas trees or display any decorations. Only a few restaurants are able to obtain a permit from the Ministry of Interior in Gaza, so that they can hold celebrations and dinners for families with the beginning of the new year.
Karam is a 28-year-old deacon, who works at the only Orthodox Church in the Gaza Strip, the Church of Saint Porphyrius. This church is over 1,600 years old.
“This year travel permits were granted to 561 Orthodox and Catholic Christians from Gaza, including both men and women. The permit duration stretches from Dec. 24 until Jan. 8. Visitors are allowed to enter to West Bank and Israeli cities, except for the Eilat area,” Karam said.
He added that “there are hundreds of Palestinian Christians who cannot travel because they are either under the age of 35 or above the age of 16. I am one of those unfortunate ones who are banned from traveling.”
The deacon said that the last Christmas celebrations in Gaza were held in 1999, a few months before the eruption of the second intifada. At that time, a huge Christmas tree used to be lit at the Square of the Unknown Soldier in Gaza City. Celebrations would be held throughout the season. Today, only prayers are held and people visit each other in their homes.
Karam appeared alone in the empty church adjacent to the Welayat Mosque, which is located in the old city in Gaza. He explained that nowadays, religious rituals are no longer held prior to the festive season. The war has taken its toll on Gaza, leaving nothing but sadness and sorrow in the hearts of its people. They have lost their enthusiasm for the holiday. Nothing is left but the routine. Every Jan. 7 of each year, families come to pray in the early morning and leave.
I am a Palestinian from Palestine
Hani Saba, a 61-year-old man, has recently returned from Egypt after spending more than four years there. The Israeli authorities placed his name on a black list and he is banned from entering the West Bank because of his history of political struggle. By the same token, he was forced to leave the Gaza Strip, as he was affiliated with the Fatah Movement.
Today, as he stands before his old house in the Gaza neighborhood of Zeitoun, which is known for its affiliation with Hamas, he said: “I chose to leave the Gaza Strip for political reasons. I came back a month ago because I wanted to celebrate Christmas with my family and children, who came from abroad to spend the holidays with us. Were it not for families, the joy of Christmas would have been lost forever in Gaza.”
He stressed that he will not abandon his land or this house, which he has owned since 1936. He is “a Palestinian from Palestine and will no longer leave Gaza, whatever the political identity of the successive Palestinian governments.”
While he was leaving his home to visit his relatives, where the family gathers during the festive holiday, Hani said “We are all still affected by the repercussions of the war. The war does not spare anyone. It does not distinguish between Muslims or Christians and missiles do not choose their victims. That is why the festive atmosphere is marred by sadness and sorrow. However, Gaza remains the closest city to my heart. My family owns 11 acres in the cities that are occupied by Israel, including the cities of Masmiya, Bil’in, al-Sawafiri and Constantine. We hold out hope that one day we will be able to celebrate the birth of Jesus Christ in these cities.”
As she was sitting near the Christmas tree gazing out of the window, Ellen said, “My only hope for getting out of Gaza and truly celebrating Christmas is to graduate from high school with high grades, so I can join my brother in Europe, where he promised me I can pursue my studies. Only then would I be able to celebrate Christmas, no matter how old I get, away from the humiliation we suffer at the hands of the Israeli authorities and the sorrows of Gaza!”