Christmas in Bethlehem

Israel/Palestine

The separation wall that lines the northern and western borders of Bethlehem acts as a daily reminder of occupation in one of the most iconic cities for peace on earth.

As Christmas comes near, and the world looks to the birthplace of Jesus Christ, every year the people of Bethlehem find unique ways to bring the world’s attention to the reality on the ground.

At protests across the occupied West Bank, one of the most popular ways to highlight the juxtaposition of Christmas under occupation is the Santa March.

Two Santas in Bethlehem

Two Santas look on toward the Israeli separation wall that lines Bethlehem city in the occupied West Bank. (Photo: Abed al Qaisi)

Santa dons kuffiyeh

During the march some of the Santas wore Palestinian national symbols, like the kuffiyeh scarf, to highlight their cause. (Photo: Abed al Qaisi)

In villages and cities, big and small, men young and old dress up as one of the most well known icons in the world to attract attention to their cause.

In Bethlehem city, just a few miles away from where Jesus is believed to have been born, the protests, as expected, turned violent.

Santa in gas mask

A Santa in a gas mask confronts an Israeli soldier who blocks his freedom of movement. (Photo: Abed al Qaisi)

Soldiers order protesters to stand back in Bethlehem

Israeli soldiers fire off tear gas at marchers. After having pushed them back from the “frontline” of clashes. (Photo: Abed al Qaisi)

Men dressed as Santa Claus marched down one of the main streets in city toward the towering separation wall on a mission — to bring candy and gifts to Jerusalem.

The mission was a symbolic one, the men know well that the occupation which controls every aspect of their life had no intention of letting the Santas through.

Protesters paste poster of Manasri

Protesters paste a poster of Ahmed Manasra, a 13-year-old boy being held by Israel and charged for attempted murder after an alleged attempted stabbing attack in Jerusalem. The sign says “For Christmas I want every Palestinian child back home.” Palestinian children as young as 12 can be sentenced to time in adult prison under Israeli military law. (Photo: Abed al Qaisi)

As marchers reached the wall, screaming to be allowed through, they were blocked by fully armed soldiers who know well that cameras from agencies around the world were pointed at them. Because of the imagery, the soldiers have more allowance to the men, who, on a normal day in normal clothes would have been arrested or worse for daring to march up so close to Israeli soldiers.

Instead, the soldiers held back for sometime, pushing the Santas back, screaming insults. Eventually, Israeli forces retreated behind the wall, shooting tear gas from concrete towers.

“We knew this would happen,” one of the Santas told Mondoweiss. “We didn’t expect to be allowed through, but it’s important we do something to show the world what’s happening here while people are looking our city. This is Bethlehem, tear gas and soldiers and walls and occupation. This is the holy land.”

The March erupted into typical clashes, with young men from neighboring refugee camps and overcrowded communities taking to the streets, chucking rocks at a fully equipped army in the name of resistance.

Protester holds sign Christians and Muslims pray for this Christmas to be he last under occupation

Palestinian A protester holds a sign that says ” Christians and Muslims pray for this Christmas to be he last under occupation.” (Photo: Abed al Qaisi)

Santas in Bethlehem

Medics, Santas and young men gather down the road after being tear gassed. (Photo: Abed al Qaisi)

Protester kicks tear gas canister, Bethlehem

After clashes erupt, a young man wearing a Kufiyeh and gas mask kicks a burning gas canister back towards Israeli forces. (Photo: Abed al Qaisi)

sheren10

Protesters burn tires and throw rocks at Israeli forces during clashes after the Santa March. (Photo: Abed al Qaisi)

About Abed Al Qaisi

Abed Al Qaisi is a freelance multimedia journalist covering conflict in the Middle East and Europe. Abed has done work for Al Jazeera English, USA Today, Vice News and more.

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About Sheren Khalel

Sheren Khalel is a freelance multimedia journalist who works out of Israel, Palestine and Jordan. She focuses on human rights, women's issues and the Palestine/Israel conflict. Khalel formerly worked for Ma'an News Agency in Bethlehem, and is currently based in Ramallah and Jerusalem. You can follow her on Twitter at @Sherenk.

Other posts by .


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19 Responses

  1. Brewer
    December 21, 2015, 3:45 pm

    Seasons best wished to Mondoweissers

    Rejoice, for unto us a saviour is born:
    http://4.bp.blogspot.com/-0oFRyNn3XIE/VnUEF0-MF8I/AAAAAAACP-E/0vRGc_DjFe8/s1600/putin_600%2B%25282%2529.jpg

  2. just
    December 21, 2015, 4:48 pm

    Fantastic photos!

    Thank you so very much for this. Shame on Israel, and shame on the US of A.

  3. Blownaway
    December 21, 2015, 5:43 pm

    Christmas wishes from Jews of the holy land

    Jewish extremists’ leader: Christians are ‘blood sucking vampires’ who should be expelled from Israel
    Benzi Gopstein, head of Lehava, calls to ban Christmas in the Holy Land: ‘Let us remove the vampires before they once again drink our blood.’

    • just
      December 21, 2015, 6:14 pm

      No surprise there, Blownaway.

      I just found this @ Taxi’s site:

      “After 2,000 years, Christians disappearing from Gaza

      GAZA CITY — Dim lighting and candles softly illuminate decorative tapestries as the smell of incense fills the air and the harmonic sound of hundreds singing in unison drifts onto a busy street next to an overflowing church on a wet and windy Sunday morning.

      Despite the packed pews at Gaza’s Church of St. Porphyrius just weeks before Christmas, Christianity is not booming here. Rather, the worshipers at the 1,600-year-old shrine believe they may be the last group of Christians in Gaza, where they have lived and prayed since the birth of Jesus.

      The ongoing Israeli blockade of the Gaza Strip and the highest unemployment rate in the world are prompting Christians to leave the besieged area in droves, some using the holiday season to their advantage.

      Although Israel rarely grants permits to leave the Palestinian territory, dozens of Christians are allowed to visit Bethlehem and Jerusalem during Easter and Christmas, and some take the opportunity to never return home so they can start a new life elsewhere.

      Today, the population that once spanned 3,000 Christians in Gaza just a few years ago has been reduced to 1,200, and worshipers say the area could be entirely devoid of the religious denomination within two decades.

      “People might think we’re leaving because of Hamas, but no it’s because of … (Israeli) policies on Gaza,” Jaber Jilder, an official with the Greek Orthodox Church said, referring to the militant group that governs Gaza and is labeled a terrorist organization by the United States and others.

      Israeli sanctions on Gaza have made freedom of movement and goods almost non-existent, and have contributed to an economy that the World Bank said is on the “verge of collapse.” A United Nations report this year said the 2014 Israeli-Hamas war and the current blockade will make the Palestinian territory “unlivable” by 2020.

      Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has frequently defended the blockade, saying it stops weapons from being smuggled into Gaza and to Hamas.

      “Most of our community have no opportunities. There are no jobs, especially after university,” Jilder said. “I hear this Christmas about 50 people will leave Gaza … but they won’t return.”

      “As soon as there is a way for me to leave I will go, and I want to send my sons outside if they get the chance,” … .

      There is a palpable sadness when conversation drifts to the future of Christianity in Gaza, and there’s anger, too. A community that has survived two centuries through times of war and natural disasters now feels like it is on its last legs.

      “We don’t want to leave, but we are forced to because of the economic and political situation here,” said Luzil Asaree, a worshiper sitting in the courtyard of the church after the service. “It’s sad, Christians have been here since the beginning of our religion.”

      The Christian population in the West Bank has also been on the decline for similar reasons, said George Abueed, a Palestinian-Christian from Bethlehem.

      “Palestinian Christians … receive no tolerance or mercy from the Israeli occupation. Their land has been confiscated, their houses have been destroyed, and they have been subjected to daily humiliation on checkpoints when they travel,” he said. “Same discriminatory measures for everyone. Christians and Muslims.”

      That claim of discrimination by both religious groups in Gaza has led to a feeling of unity. During the 2014 war, the Church of St. Porphyrius was opened up by the Christian community as a shelter for hundreds of Muslims. In addition, many Christians said they feel respected under Hamas’ rule, and that the militant group regards them as an important religious minority.

      “The government here has helped us, and we can go to them if we have problems,” Jilder said. “We face the same problems, the same bombs.”

      With three devastating wars in a decade and the ongoing blockade, the vulnerable community believes it is losing about 5% of its population each year. Those leaving are mainly young Christians with limited job opportunities who are jaded and traumatized by war and hoping to start a new life.

      Ibrahim Tarazi, a engineering graduate, said he is one of those waiting to leave. “I am trying to find any way to get out. All the youth are suffering here, all of them are trying to leave.”

      Still, the thought that the Christian population could be gone in a decade or two pains him.

      “Nobody would leave if we had a life here,” he said. “If the situation remains the same then the numbers will keep going down, but I can’t see any future where it is better.””

      https://platosguns.com/2015/12/21/after-2000-years-christians-disappearing-from-gaza/#comment-11790

      It’s beyond criminal.

      • diasp0ra
        December 21, 2015, 6:33 pm

        Thank you for the link/article, Just.

      • just
        December 21, 2015, 7:07 pm

        You are welcome, diasp0ra.

  4. Rodneywatts
    December 21, 2015, 6:40 pm

    When events like this happen I am deeply saddened and also extremely angered. How can people like John Hagee and members of CUFI,, who profess to be followers of Jesus of Nazareth and who will celebrate Christmas, support the evil, murdering, thieving oppressive regime of the government of Israel?
    I join with the palestinian in the photo with the banner and say a big AMEN!!!
    I would also join in wishing all people of goodwill-Christian, Muslim, Jew or Humanist a true SHALOM and pray that in 2016 hearts and minds will be changed so that the message of love brought by Jesus Christ may be made manifest.

  5. oldgeezer
    December 21, 2015, 7:16 pm

    There have a number of christian Palestinian refugees that have moved into my area. Without an exception they blame the occupation, oppression and the wall for forcing them to leave their homes. Generally the blame has been placed on Israel killing the local economy leaving them with no means of livelihood.

    As much as zionists like to blame muslims for consequences of Irsaeli actions it’s not going to sell.

    • Maximus Decimus Meridius
      December 22, 2015, 5:31 am

      I hate when Zionists try to concern troll over Palestinian Christians. Like they give a toss. Even worse is when they pretend to care about Palestinian gays – that’s been a major propaganda line for years now. The reality is that Palestinian Christians – from George Habash to Hanan Ashrawi – have been disproportionately represented in the Palestinian struggle. So the old ‘divide and conquer’ thing really hasn’t worked.

      • Marnie
        December 22, 2015, 7:16 am

        So very sad. The Haaretz article noted by blownaway about Benzi Gopstein is absolutely disgusting. He can incite his base without consequences, but if a Palestinian even mentions the occupation on social media he or she will be thrown in jail and possibly have their home demolished. I pray that this is the last holiday the occupation ruins.

  6. Stephen Shenfield
    December 21, 2015, 7:40 pm

    If the Santas had only remembered to bring their reindeer they could have flown safely over the soldiers and delivered their goodies.

    • Kris
      December 21, 2015, 9:16 pm

      Probably the Israeli soldiers would have shot the Santas and reindeer down.

      The U.S. mass media would then have published the pictures of the dead and dying Santas and reindeer, but only if the soldiers had managed to scatter enough knives around in the foreground.

      • Kay24
        December 21, 2015, 10:08 pm

        Santa would have definitely been called a “terrorist”, and the poor weak IDF would have been “defending” itself from those frightening antlers.

      • a4tech
        December 22, 2015, 3:10 am

        Just like how Muslims are exclusively branded terrorists, while actual white male terrorists are always termed as mentally ill and given media protection regardless of level of mayhem and carnage brought by these unfortunate sector of American society.

      • Stephen Shenfield
        December 22, 2015, 6:29 am

        Santa’s veterinarian explains that “once I’ve made sure they’re healthy, I fill out health certificates for the reindeer to make sure that Santa can legally fly them into the countries around the world and to prevent any unnecessary delays” (https://www.avma.org/KB/Pages/Santas-Veterinarian-Answers-Kids-Questions-About-Santas-Reindeer.aspx). But I suppose that a health certificate from Santa’s veterinarian won’t get you through an Israeli checkpoint.

  7. Ossinev
    December 22, 2015, 11:04 am

    @RodneyWatts
    “When events like this happen I am deeply saddened and also extremely angered. How can people like John Hagee and members of CUFI,, who profess to be followers of Jesus of Nazareth and who will celebrate Christmas, support the evil, murdering, thieving oppressive regime of the government of Israel?”

    Hagee and hundreds of thousands of like minded nutjob evangelicals in the US do not give a toss about Christmas. They are utterly focused on and prophesize the concept/prospect of the “end of days” and the”second coming”. They actually loathe Jews and Judaism but unconditionally support extreme right wing Israel and right wing Israelis and the settlements enterprise as necessary tools in the realization of their end of days scenario.Of course the Jewish Zionist nutjobs in Israel and the US do the same in reverse.They milk this support for all its worth simply ignoring the facts of what Hagee and Co are praying for viz:

    “Yet this prophesy cannot come to pass until all the Jews have been gathered into the state of Israel. Therefore, the Evangelical support of Israel is not merely some token of good will, it is a fulfillment of a prophesy of mass slaughter. There are currently 4.5 million Jews in Israel. If two-thirds of these Jews were to die at the time of “Great Tribulation,” this means that 3 million Jews will be killed. If we’re counting all the Jews in the world, (which is around 14 million people according to the Jewish Virtual Library), we’re talking about 10 million people dead”

    Hagee and co and Israeli Zionists are mirror images of sick societies irretrievably mired in religious madness. The only difference as far as I can tell is that the crazy American evangelicals are not constantly whining about being “blameless victims”

  8. xanadou
    December 22, 2015, 4:53 pm

    Israel’s self-destructive insanity, for all the world to see, is mind boggling. Or to onionize pastor Niemoeller:

    First they imposed the Naqba on the natives,
    And the new immigrants did nothing because they were now israeli.
    Then they sent the mostmoral army to kill, torture, bomb and disposess the barely surviving Palestinians,
    And the racists did nothing because they are Israeli,
    Then they lost their minds and began to undermine their own carefully crafted myths,
    And the israelis are doing nothing, because they never believed the b/s anyway…

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