Palestinians mark Christmas amid Israeli restrictions

In the last fortnight, the Israeli military imposed roadblocks in the West Bank and stormed several Palestinian towns and villages. (Reuters)
Updated 25 December 2018
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Palestinians mark Christmas amid Israeli restrictions

  • The city’s markets are usually bustling over Christmas, with thousands of foreign tourists attending religious celebrations and midnight mass, but this year traders complained that business was down

BETHLEHEM: Palestinian Christians celebrated Christmas despite Israeli restrictions. The city of Bethlehem adorned a Christmas tree in Manger Square, where the Church of the Nativity is located. 

The square hosted a number of activities, including the establishment of Santa’s Village and celebrations for children and families. 

The city’s markets are usually bustling over Christmas, with thousands of foreign tourists attending religious celebrations and midnight mass, but this year traders complained that business was down.

In the last fortnight, the Israeli military imposed roadblocks in the West Bank and stormed several Palestinian towns and villages in search of Palestinians who opened fire on its forces. 

Marwan Salibi, a salesman at an antiques shop in Bethlehem, told Arab News: “We rely on the holiday period mainly, but this year we’re witnessing weak business activity. Insecurity is one of the important reasons.”

At this time of year, the city is visited by Christians from elsewhere in Palestine. “We visit Bethlehem every year, once or twice,” Sally Awwad, from the village of Zababdeh near the city of Jenin in the northern West Bank, told Arab News.

“I used to visit with my family, but now I’m with my friends from different cities. We buy souvenirs and pray in the Church of the Nativity,” she said.

“I always hope that Bethlehem, the place where Jesus was born, becomes a free place to be visited by Christians from all over Palestine and the world. This doesn’t happen because we live under occupation.” 

In the Hamas-controlled Gaza Strip, the YMCA on Saturday lit up a Christmas tree for the first time in years at a ceremony attended by Christians and Muslims.

“After years of not lighting the Christmas tree in Gaza, we decided this year to celebrate with the Palestinians in Gaza in a small ceremony,” said Hani Farah, director of the YMCA.

Every year, Israel issues permits for some Christians in Gaza to travel to Bethlehem, but hundreds are prevented from attending midnight mass in the city. There are an estimated 1,000 Christians living in Gaza.

In early December, the city of Ramallah lit up a Christmas tree in a joyous atmosphere in Yasser Arafat Square.

“How wonderful to meet all of our great Palestinian people, to celebrate one of our national holidays in which we shine the glorious Christmas tree, to affirm our love for each other and that we’re people of peace in Palestine and Jerusalem, which includes Christian and Islamic holy sites,” said Archimandrite Elias Awad, patron of the Greek Orthodox Church in Ramallah.

“We want to send a message to the world that we’re a people who want peace, we have our rights, we look forward to the independence of our state, we salute our national and religious days without barriers and occupation.”

The YMCA lit up a Christmas tree in Jerusalem in early December, marking the start of celebrations.

Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas said in a message to the world on the occasion of Christmas: “We want (Jerusalem) to be an open city for worship for all believers and followers of all religions… and for our people to exercise their right to freedom of worship in their Christian and Islamic holy places.”


Saudi Arabia: Palestinian initiative ‘a great opportunity to bring prosperity and opportunities’

Updated 4 min 34 sec ago
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Saudi Arabia: Palestinian initiative ‘a great opportunity to bring prosperity and opportunities’

  • UAE’s Minister of State for Financial Affairs Obaid Humaid Al-Tayer said "we should give this initiative a chance."
  • Tony Blair insists to Jared Kushner that there must be a two-state solution

MANAMA: Saudi Arabia's Finance Minister Mohammed Al-Jadaan said Wednesday the Kingdom will support whatever economic plan will bring prosperity to the Palestinians.

Speaking on the second day of an international conference on a US initiative to improve the economic plight of Gaza and the West Bank, Al-Jadaan said he was “very, very optimistic” about the plan. 

“The region is in desperate need of prosperity and hope and we and our colleagues share the view that whatever brings prosperity to this region, we will support it,” he said, alongside US Treasury Secretary, Steven Mnuchin and the Bahraini and Emirati finance ministers.

“We have been a great supporter of Palestine for decades … so its not something we are going to shy away from and we will continue supporting the Palestinians,” Al-Jadaan added.

The initiative was outlined by Donald Trump's senior advisor and son-in-law Jared Kushner on Tuesday as the conference in Bahrain got under way. The $50 billion economic formula would see investment in infrastructure, tourism and education.

Palestinian leaders have accused the plan of legitimising Israel’s occupation of their territory and for being secondary to a political resolution to the conflict. But on the second day of the conference, both Arab and western political leaders, ministers and  business chiefs discussed what needed to be done to make the plan work.

Al-Jadaan said the plan was a “great opportunity” and that there was a “significant international commitment” to support the people of Palestine to bring prosperity and opportunities.

“You need political commitment, you need clear transparency, you need predictability for the private sector to join, you need the rule of law … and you want to make sure that there is proper governance in place,” he said. 

The UAE’s Minister of State for Financial Affairs Obaid Humaid Al-Tayer said "we should give this initiative a chance."

Earlier, Jared Kushner discussed the initiative with the former British prime minister Tony Blair, who insisted there still must be a two-state solution to the conflict. The White House has not said it backs the principle, and the political element of its plan has not yet been revealed.

"It's absolutely foolish to believe you can have economics without sound politics, but it's likewise completely futile to think politics will work without economics buttressing it," Blair told the gathering.

The foreign minister of Bahrain also reiterated the need for a two-state solution but said the plan was an "opportunity not to be missed".

"I think if we take this matter seriously it could be a very important game-changer," Sheikh Khalid bin Ahmed Al-Khalifa said.

In an earlier panel, Arab News Editor-in-Chief Faisal J. Abbas said the initiative “will definitely require a lot of work but it is definitely achievable.”

Bahrain’s Labor Market CEO Osama Al-Absi, told the panel, entitled Empowering the People, “we must look at how post-war economies were built” in order to make the plan work.

International Monetary Fund managing director, Christine Lagarde, said generating economic growth in conflict-riven countries can be a struggle.

The IMF puts unemployment at 30 percent in the West Bank and 50 percent in Gaza, which has suffered years of Israeli and Egyptian blockades and recent foreign aid cuts and sanctions by the Palestinian Authority, Hamas' rival in the Israeli-occupied West bank.

"Gaza right now is feeling a lot of pain because of bad leadership and the sanctions that have been imposed on them because of it," Kushner said. "So the question that (Hamas)leadership has to ask themselves is...do they hate their neighbour in Israel more than they love their citizens and their people?"

The 179 proposed infrastructure and business projects in the plan include a $5 billion transportation corridor to connect the West Bank and Gaza, which has been floated before and stalled for lack of underlying political or security agreements.

Palestinian businessman Ashraf Jabari, chairman of the Palestinian Business Network, told the gathering it is difficult to build an economy with a "siege and unstable situation".

"Frankly, we demand an independent Palestinian state on the territories occupied by Israel in 1967," said the businessman from Hebron who has co-founded a trade group to boost business between Palestinians and Israeli settlers."

*With Reuters