Dec 28 2000

Christmas in Bethlehem

Published by at 12:00 am under Articles,Palestinian politics

There is no date in any calendar year that is more important for family get together than the holidays. This year both Christmas and Id al-Fitr fell on almost identical dates.

This year is perhaps the worst facing Palestinian families in decades: The multi-layered Israeli siege on Palestinian territories has forced various members of the same family to celebrate alone.

Palestinians like to spend the holidays visiting the grave sites of deceased family members, visiting prisoners, and of course large families like getting together, often at the home of their parents. Let me detail some of the obstacles facing Palestinians this particular holiday season. 

First, there is absolutely no direct connection between Gaza and the West Bank. For families with a son or daughter living in either location, the idea of having a Christmas meal together or enjoying an Id get-together is impossible. Not only is the safe-passage road closed, but the regular crossing at the Erez checkpoint is also off limits to Palestinians whether going in or out of Gaza.

True, the airport is open. So theoretically one can fly from Gaza’s international airport to Jordan and then attempt to cross into the West Bank from Jordan. But unless one’s destination is Jericho, getting to any other West Bank city is another story.

Connections between the West Bank and Jordan, where intermarriage is common, are severely restricted, even though the King Hussein bridge is theoretically open. For West Bank Palestinians to cross the bridge they have to ride the only bus given access to the terminal point, which leaves and returns to the Istiraha (“resting place”) in Jericho. The trick is to get to this bus depot which is within area “A,” under full Palestinian control.

All main roads to Jericho are sealed by soldiers. So for a vehicle to enter the city in order to deposit or collect stranded passengers, only side dirt roads can be used. And it is precisely these side roads that the Israeli army has been systematically closing, either by piling up mountains of dirt (which are quickly removed) or their latest trick of digging deep trenches (which are harder to deal with).

The recent rains have made many of these side roads much more difficult to navigate. Trails of jammed taxis can be seen on many of these roads. Of course, if cars can’t move, people can walk, and that is what many have had to do, sometimes walking three or four kilometers just to reach the nearest paved road in the hope of getting a ride to safety.

Jerusalem residents, who don’t have to use the Istiraha and can travel the Israeli-built bypass road, have a new, much more difficult obstacle. They need permits to cross. The Israeli Interior Ministry issues the permits. But since employees of the ministry have been on strike for two months, demanding better wages, there is no one to issue the permits. And so, although Palestinians from Jerusalem can safely reach the Israeli terminal at the bridge, they can’t leave because they don’t possess the dreaded exit pass.

For families of prisoners, there is also a Catch-22 . The Israeli Prisons Service says that regular visits can take place. But to get to the prisons which are all inside Israel, Palestinians need permits to enter Israel. And since the West Bank and Gaza are under siege, no such permits are being issued. Even the traditional release of a few prisoners in honor of the holidays doesn’t seem to be a consideration this season.

Travel between cities has also been curtailed. Huge cement blocks, mountains, dirt, or deep trenches are used to close off whichever arteries the Israeli soldiers are unwilling to man.

Animals are back in fashion as an effective way of transporting people and their belongings out of besieged areas. So with the exception of the Erez crossing and the international borders, Palestinians wishing to get from one place to another can eventually find a way.

For Gazan students in the West Bank, or people with relatives in Jordan or Israel, the choice is to stay put or spend the holidays in student dormitories or with friends.

If the aim of the Israeli blockade is to break the Palestinian spirit, the results have been a major failure. The blockade is producing results and they are in human and emotional scars that will take a long time to heal.

And if, on the eve of the current peace talks, the aim is to force Palestinians to accept unacceptable compromises, this blockade hasn’t had much of an effect on Palestinian Authority Chairman Yasser Arafat, who is free to travel by air.

But if anything, this inhuman blockade has served to strengthen Palestinian unity and despite all odds, it has increased hopes for a better future.

Happy New Year to all.

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