Toine van Teeffelen, Head of Education at the AEI-Open Windows Centre in Bethlehem, and Pax Christi partner, writes: The scouts' faces are serious. Sometimes a face suddenly breaks into a smile when friends or family members are recognized. People are coming out to watch events the day before Christmas. The youth, among them Tamer, play drums and bagpipes (an imperialist leftover) in the old streets of Bethlehem. They precede the Italian Apostolic Administrator - the seat of the Catholic patriarch is vacant for the time being - who walks and shakes hands rather than staying in the car as was usage in the past. Bethlehem is anyway much too full of cars.
A group of young women show traditional Palestinian dresses from the collection of Maha Saca, the director of a Palestinian Heritage Center. Along the route are banners, "Jerusalem will always be the eternal capital of Palestine."
Next day we go to the church in the company of Mary's family from Paris and Canada who are here on a Christmas and New Year visit. After a night of heavy rainfall the sun radiates pleasantly through the stained glass windows. The archbishop tells the believers he is aware of the discussions about the celebrations during the present time of sadness and protest in the wake of Trump's Jerusalem declaration. However, he says that we should also be aware that the message of Jesus' birth is hope for peace, a just peace. In other words, the celebrations are actually full of relevance to the present political situation.
The after-Mass atmosphere in the church courtyard is relaxed and festive. People tell "kull sane wa intu salmeen" to each other - let each year be peaceful for you. Mary stays longer so as to congratulate the Apostolic Administrator.
In the folllowing days the family goes to East-Jerusalem, to walk around and have a drink at, among other places, the American Colony hotel located along the central busy Saleh-al-Din street in East-Jerusalem. According to CNN, it is the Israeli government's plan to change the name of Saleh al-Din Street into "Donald J Trump street." A future Israeli train station at the Western Wall would also be named after him.
When passing the Jerusalem-Bethlehem checkpoint, a soldier, seemingly passive and sleeplike, explodes when I tell him that my coat is stuck in the X-ray machine. "Put a basket behind it!" he shouts when I don't immediately grasp what he wants to say.
The other day Mary and the kids and our family from abroad arrive at a gate to the Haram al-Sharif in Jerusalem, the Islamic area where the Dome of the Rock and Al-Aqsa Mosque are located. Israeli soldiers are guarding the gate. They turn out to speak fluent Arabic, and ask for the religions of the visitors. In the past Palestinians, including Christian Palestinians, were allowed to enter the Haram al-Sharif through other gates and at other moments than permitted to foreign visitors. One soldier tests whether the kids and family from Paris speak Arabic.
The second soldier then consults a man from the waqf [Islamic authority]. It is not clear who decides but in the end there is no entry permission for Christians. Mary says that in the same way as Moslems are allowed to visit the Bethlehem Church of Nativity, Christian Palestinians should be allowed to visit the Haram al-Sharif. And: "It is you [Israelis] who divide us, not us!" A soldier: "I first considered to give you permission to enter, but after you said this you are definitely not allowed. Please go back."
In a nutshell the two main Israeli tactics to preserve subservience: fragmentation and showing who is the boss.
During New Year's eve, Palestinian youth take away decorations from the official Christmas tree in Ramallah, apparently to tell Christians not to celebrate now. Mary and our family from Paris disagree: keeping on the celebrations is by itself a statement of resistance: "Existence is resistance," as the slogan goes.
Once a Moslem Palestinian politician, asked about the issue, mentioned that he was used to visit a burial in the morning and a wedding in the afternoon - Intifada or not. Life must go on.
Read more about the AEI centre here: http://aeicenter.org
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