'Santa empty-handed' for Christmas in Gaza

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As Gaza's Greek Orthodox community prepares to celebrate its Christmas Day today, it's clear there has rarely been a bleaker festive season for the Strip's little Christian community than this year.

Even under occupation, it used to celebrate Christmas openly, though without the pomp and commercialism of the West. In the centre of Gaza City, a giant Christmas tree used to stand adorned with ornaments, and Santa Claus passed out gifts to people in streets. Today, the municipality is unable to afford a tree.

Nor were there many decorations for Catholics and Baptists, the other two main Gaza denominations, to take down yesterday Twelfth Night in the Western Christian calendar.

Fr Manuel Musallam, the Roman Catholic head of the Holy Family School, a private Catholic institution attended by both Christian and Muslim Palestinians, said: "Each year, we decorate our school in Christmas colours [red and green]. Not this year. Paper and drawing materials are scarce due to the Israeli border closures and siege. And if we happen to find supplies at the market, we cannot afford them."

However, Fr Musallam added: "Instead of chocolate, Santa Claus [has been] giving strawberry plants. We used to offer chocolate to our children at the school. But now because of the Israeli siege, no chocolate is available. Strawberries by contrast have been cheap and plentiful because many destined for Europe have been prevented by the Israelis from being exported."

He lamented the lack of money or supplies for celebration, adding: "Santa Claus is empty handed ... insolvent this year."

Last night was Christmas Eve for the Greek Orthodox community. It coincided with the miserable news that Gazans will now be forced to live without electricity eight hours a day because Israel is cutting fuel supplies to the territory's only electric plant. Israel said the cutback was meant to send a "stern message" to Gaza militants to stop their ongoing rocket attacks on southern Israel.

The church's Sunday school headmaster, Jaber al-Jilda, insisted that Hamas, which seized control in Gaza last June, has never interfered with Christian celebrations. "In fact last year, as the year before, they came and offered Christmas greetings at our church to the entire congregation." But he added: "We cannot celebrate and at the same time watch as a funeral of another killed by Israeli cccupation passes in front of our church."

Mr Jilda has been coaching 17 students in the re-creation of the nativity story to be performed on Christmas Eve in a sanctuary shared with Muslims. On Friday the building is a Mosque on Sunday, a church. Merkiana Tarazi, 16, one of the students participating in the play, said: "I don't feel like celebrating Christmas. In the absence of safety and peace, even if I wear new clothes, inside I still won't be happy." Like many in Gaza with family in Israel, Jordan or the West Bank, Merkiana will have to celebrate without key family members. Her older sister, attending Beirzeit University in the West Bank, cannot come home for Christmas, "because of the Israeli siege", she says.