Santa Gets Tear-Gassed In Palestine: How Israel Suppresses Christmas for Palestinians

Palestinian Christians don't have much to celebrate under the occupation.

Tomorrow is Christmas, and more than a billion people will be waking to presents, hot cocoa and holiday jingles. But for Palestine's 40,000 to 90,000 Christians, most of whom live in the West Bank, Christmas takes place under Israeli occupation.

Bethlehem, the fabled location of Jesus's birth, is under siege. The Latin Patriarch of Jerusalem, Fouad Twal, had to pass through a massive separation barrier and military checkpoints that split Jerusalem and Bethlehem in order to arrive at Manger Square to begin Christmas Eve celebrations.

The city's mayor, Vera Baboun, included a solemn nod to the occupation in her annual Christmas message, saying, “Despite all Israeli occupation practices, including the siege, ongoing land seizure and settlement expansion, the city is flooded with happiness as it welcomes visitors while sending a message of hope and love. The residents of Bethlehem are still seeking justice, hoping that the world will help bring peace. The city faces an undeclared war, the basis of which is the wall, and the isolation of the northern district of the city.”

One of the great Christian holy sites is the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, which is found in Jerusalem. For Palestinian Christians, reaching the site is practically a biblical trial. Israel is currently denying Palestinians under the age of 35 from visiting the site. One Christian pastor in Gaza who works with refugees in Jordan, told Middle East Monitor that because of the series of military checkpoints, his trip from Jordan to his family home took 17 hours. "The challenge for us as Christians, by the grace of God, we are able to forgive because we experienced God's forgiveness. The challenge for us as Evangelical Christians, as a pastor, is how to keep your mind and your heart pure and to live by the spirit of forgiveness and not to let hatred rule in your life,” said.

The system of military domination the Palestinians live under, designed to secure an ever-expanding series of settlements in the West Bank, naturally provokes protests. In Bethlehem, the Popular Struggle Coordination Committee lit a Christmas tree in the Hall of Nativity that was decorated with teargas grenades and sound bombs the Israeli soldiers had used against their protests.

Also near Bethlehem, Palestinians dressed as Santa Claus joined demonstrations against one of the city's many Israeli checkpoints. Their signs pointed to the Israeli military presence, with one reading, “We want Christmas without Occupation.” Here's a Reuters report about the Christmas-themed protest:

One Santa-themed protester had to be evacuated by medics after inhaling too much tear gas.

The deprivations Palestinian Christians are experiencing come against a backdrop of increasing support for Israel's government from the American Christian far-right – some from quarters that ironically have a history of anti-semitism, like evangelical Pastor John Hagee. But as Senator Ted Cruz (R-TX) recently learned at an event where he was booed by Arab Christians, many of the faith look at the unfair treatment of Palestinian followers of Christ in Bethlehem and other parts of the occupied territories with disdain.

Zaid Jilani is an AlterNet staff writer. Follow @zaidjilani on Twitter.

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