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Israel's Jews flock to Arab towns for Christmas

Many Arab towns and villages, not necessarily Christian, are now featuring Christmas markets, targeting also Israeli Jewish tourists.
People walk along an alley at a Christmas market in the Christian Quarter of the Old City, Jerusalem, Dec. 15, 2022.

BAQA AL-GHARBIYYEH, Israel — Until a few years ago, Jewish Israelis who wanted to get into the Christmas spirit had to travel to towns with a large Christian population like Haifa and Nazareth. The situation is remarkably different today, with an increasing number of Arab towns and villages are organizing Christmas markets, with invitations to Israelis getting printed in Hebrew, to attract the Jewish population.

The unease about Christmas among the Jewish population in Israel is gradually becoming something from the past. Israelis would travel to Europe to visit Christmas markets, but skipped the holiday markets in their own country.

This year, people can visit towns like Shfaram, Eilabun, Mi’ilya, Fassuta, Yarka, Tarshiha, Nazareth, Jaffa and Haifa to join the celebrations and experience the holiday atmosphere while visiting local Christmas markets. In addition to all the stalls and Christmas trees, there are special holiday performances by artists, singers and choirs.

In other words, Christmas markets in Israel are no longer associated exclusively with the Christian community; they are slowly becoming a holiday destination for Israeli families of other religions.

A Christmas market in Deir Hanna last week included the ceremonial lighting of the Christmas tree, as well as stalls and shows for children and adults.

DJ Rehan, one of the performers, told Al-Monitor, that Christmas are offering a boost for the local economy.

“Christmas markets are catching on in Arab towns and villages, especially in the north. Sales at the stalls contribute quite a bit to the local economy. Last week, for example, we performed in Deir Hanna, whose market attracted over 5,000 visitors, even though there are fewer than 1,000 Christians in the entire village," DJ Rehan said.

Meanwhile, Israel has blocked some members of Gaza's small Christian community from traveling to the West Bank to celebrate Christmas. Ahead of the holiday season, the Greek Orthodox Church in Gaza had sent a list of 800 names of Gazans requesting to go to the West Bank to celebrate Christmas — Israel refused to grant entry permits to 200 of them.

Further evidence of the Israeli embrace of Christmas festivities is the invitation sent by Tel Aviv municipality, offering the public to experience the traditional lighting of the Christmas tree at the Clock Tower in Jaffa on Monday. This features the lighting of the 16.5-meter (54-feet) tree while the crowd gets to enjoy performances at the site.

Attorney Amjad Shufani of the Arab village of Eilabun has been posting in the past few weeks videos and pictures showing the Christmas celebrations and market in his hometown.

“There is no doubt that the mood was joyful. The diverse crowd — consisting of Arabs and Jews — comes from towns and villages all across Israel to celebrate and enjoy the special atmosphere together," he told Al-Monitor.

Things on the Palestinian side look quite different. Though much effort has been made in recent years to rehabilitate tourist sites and encourage tourism of Christian pilgrims in the West Bank, numbers have not gone back to what they were in the pre-pandemic. 

Bethlehem is defined as Area A within the West Bank, which means that Israeli tourists cannot enter the city. Foreign tourists can travel to Bethlehem and to some of the other Christian sites in the West Bank only by arriving first to Israel, and then use private transportation. Another problem is that of Israeli tourist guides and Israeli bus and taxi drivers, who were previously allowed into the city with special work permits. Since November, Israeli authorities are banning their entry. This new regulation evidently hurts the tourism industry of Bethlehem.

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