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Next year in Bethlehem: Gaza Christmas celebrated despite siege | Palestine News

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Gaza Strip – For yet another year, Gaza’s tiny Orthodox Christian minority will not be able to celebrate Christmas with a visit to Bethlehem in the occupied West Bank.

With the ongoing Israeli siege on the enclave, Palestinians in Gaza are prohibited from uniting with family members in the West Bank, and are barred from visiting Bethlehem, where the Nativity Church is located.

Before Gaza fell under siege, “the days of Christmas were livelily celebrated – with the attendance of dignitaries – in large public squares with music, diverse shows, scout parades, a huge lit-up tree and tens of people dressed as Santa”, Samir Abu Nussira, a resident of Gaza, told Al Jazeera.

“The streets were beaming with joy and excitement, people were genuinely happy,” Nussira said.

“Back then, we used to celebrate at the Nativity Church, then visit our relatives in other parts of the West Bank on Christmas Eve,” Nussira continued. 

“This year, however, my wife and I petitioned [the Israeli authorities] to travel with our kids to Bethlehem for Christmas, but only my children received a permit to travel out of Gaza, while my wife and I were rejected.”





Permits for Christians to cross over from Gaza are subject to age restrictions [Walid Mahmoud/Al Jazeera]

Israel allows Christians to exceptionally petition to the Coordinator of Government Activities in the Territories (COGAT), an Israeli military body that administers parts of the West Bank, to cross over from Gaza during the holiday season – but permits are rarely granted.

Petitioning does not guarantee acceptance, according to Kamel Ayyad, Director of Public Relations of the Orthodox Church in Gaza.





Twelve years ago, Gaza was home to more than 3,000 Christians, according to the Orthodox Church [Walid Mahmoud/Al Jazeera]

“This year, we submitted 1,000 petitions to visit Bethlehem and Jerusalem, but we received 104 rejections … with the Israelis citing ‘security concerns’, which if their usual pretext,” Ayyad told Al Jazeera.

“Some 350 people were accepted, and the rest never heard back about their applications,” he said.

“Most of those accepted were children, while their parents received rejections and were not granted permits to escort them,” Ayyad added.

He noted that Israel sets age criteria where petitioners need to be 18-years-old or younger, or 50 and older.

Still, many who were above 50-years-old had their petitions rejected, Ayyad said.

“There are no clear rules or processes here, and it’s only getting worse every year,” he said. “Israel does not differentiate between Muslim and Christian Palestinians. If you are merely Palestinian, you’ll continue to be subjected to Israel’s collective punishment, strict measures and travel bans.”

COGAT claims on its website that “freedom of worship and religion is part of the values Israel promotes, and we are working to promote their fulfilment”.

A statement from the Israeli government denied placing age restrictions on permits for Gaza’s Palestinian Christian residents to travel to the occupied West Bank.

“Permits are approved and issued in accordance with the relevant protocols and criteria, and are subject to standard security clearances,” the statement said.

‘One people’

Despite the challenges, Palestinians in Gaza come together and embrace the spirit of Christmas in a display of Palestinian unity.

This year, a pre-Christmas celebration was held at the front yard of the Young Men’s Christian Association (YMCA) in Gaza City on Saturday, where people from across the Palestinian political and social spectrum came to enjoy a celebratory evening.

A huge Christmas tree was neatly decorated and lit up, a young chorus performed several music tracks, scouts paraded with drums and Palestinian flags, and people of different ages dressed up as Santa Claus, including children.

“The occupation prevented us from celebrating in Bethlehem, but we nonetheless will continue to celebrate wherever we are,” Elias Al-Jilda, a YMCA board member, told Al Jazeera.

“Through our celebration, we show the world our love for life and our homeland, as we show that we, as one Palestinian people, will continue to seek dignity and freedom through the simplest of things.”





For some, lighting up the Christmas tree is a sign of hope for better things to come [Walid Mahmoud/Al Jazeera]

“Our presence here shows that we are one people, with no place for hate and discrimination between us,” Gaza’s Mayor Ibrahim Abu Al-Naja told Al Jazeera.

“Our days of happiness are few, but we should nonetheless always show our oppressor that despite the blockade, we will rejoice and light up the Christmas tree.”

For some, lighting up the Christmas tree is a sign of hope for better things to come.

“We greatly hope for a life of peace and security; where the blockade is lifted and the West Bank reunites with Gaza,” Majid al-Amsh, a YMCA member, told Al Jazeera.

Decreasing numbers

The old Orthodox Church of Saint Porphyrius, in Gaza’s city centre, is preparing for the celebrations on December 25.

Twelve years ago, Gaza was home to more than 3,000 Christians; who held tight to their homes despite the hardships of living under occupation.





According to the Orthodox Church, the number of Gaza’s Christian community members barely exceeds 1,000 [Walid Mahmoud/Al Jazeera]

But the Israeli blockade – coupled with occasional Israeli air raids and scourges of violence – drove most to escape from the Gaza Strip over the years.

According to Ayyad from the Orthodox Church in Gaza, the number of Gaza’s Christian community members barely exceeds 1,000.

And those left in Gaza continue to be conflicted between continuing to endure a difficult life under the siege and following in the footsteps of others in exile.

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Ottawa families give mixed reviews for online schooling

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So, how’s it going with online school? Families reached by CBC Ottawa seem to have mixed reviews. 

Masuma Khan is a mother of two. Her seven-year-old, Hana Wyndham in Grade 2, is attending French immersion virtual school. Masuma is grateful it’s an option, but can’t help notice a lot of down time.

“There’s a lot of, ‘are you on mute?’ In terms of the amount of learning that’s actually happening, it does seem to be not that high,” said Masuma.

Parents who kept their children at home this fall are in the minority, but they still form a significant chunk of families in Ottawa.

In the city’s largest school board, the Ottawa-Carleton District School Board (OCDSB), about 27 per cent of elementary students and 22 per cent of high school students chose online learning. The Ottawa Catholic School Board says roughly a quarter of its students are online.

For Masuma, the decision to keep her daughter home was complex: extended family members are immunocompromised and she worried the in-person learning environment would be unpleasant because of precautions. She also felt her daughter might benefit from being supported at home.

“She doesn’t necessarily enjoy school. I also found out during the pandemic that she was being bullied [last year],” said Masuma. “So I thought, why not try from home?”

To help her daughter socialize face-to-face with other kids, Masuma enrolled Hana in Baxter Forest School, an alternative education program where kids spend most of their time outside, one day a week. Hana also attends virtual Arabic classes two days a week after school. 

Masuma’s husband and Hana share the living room work space, and Masuma admits he does the lion’s share of helping their daughter stay on task. There is a possibility that he’ll be required to return to his office in the new year.

“When he goes back to work … it’s probably going to be a little bit more difficult.”

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No school closures after Christmas holiday break, says Ontario education minister

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Ontario elementary and secondary schools will not close for an extended winter break, says Education Minister Stephen Lecce.

Closures aren’t needed given Ontario’s “strong safety protocols, low levels of (COVID-19) transmission and safety within our schools,” Lecce announced Wednesday afternoon. He said he had consulted with Chief Medical Officer of Health Dr. David Williams and the province’s public health measures advisory table.

That ended speculation about school buildings remaining closed in January for a period of time after the Christmas break.

Earlier in the week, Lecce told reporters the government was considering having students spend “some period out of class” in January, perhaps switching to online learning.

In a statement, Lecce said that even though rates of community transmission of COVID-19 are increasing, “schools have been remarkably successful at minimizing outbreaks to ensure that our kids stay safe and learning in their classrooms.”

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Windy start to the week in Ottawa

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OTTAWA — It’s a blustery Monday in the capital with wind gusts of up to 50 km/hour expected throughout the day.

Environment Canada is forecasting a high of 4 C with a 60 per cent chance of showers or flurries before the wind dies down later this evening.

There’s a chance of flurries on Tuesday as well with a high of -1 C. The overnight low will dip to an unseasonal -9 C.  

Wednesday’s high will be just -5 C with lots of sunshine.

Seasonal temperatures return for the rest of the week..

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