Christmas in Jerusalem


The bond between Israelis and Palestinians was evident during a pilgrimage by Onyebuchi Ezigbo

For several decades, the two brotherly nations of Israel and Palestine have been in conflict that often degenerates into full scale aggression leading to loss of lives and destruction of buildings on both sides.

The root cause of the conflict can be traced to the late 19th century, with the rise of two rival nationalist movements, Zionism and Arab nationalism. While the Zionist movement campaigned for the return of the Jewish people to their home land and the subsequent establishment of the Jewish nation state in the Palestinian held area, the Palestinian Arabs were apprehensive that the coming of the Jews in large numbers will lead to dispossession of their land.

With this fear, the Arab population in Palestine opposed the resettlement of the Jewish population at a place where they would exercise their right for self-determination. Perhaps what is at the centre of the conflict between the duo is nothing but land ownership struggle.

However, what would most likely baffle a first-time visitor to any of the Israeli and Palestinian cities is that despite the hue and cry about the Israeli Palestinian conflict, the ordinary people from both sides of the divide still co-exist in very peaceful atmosphere. Or so it seemed.

People from Israeli-controlled territory could be seen driving into the Palestinian neighborhoods and intermingling with them while Palestinians youths could be seen trooping in and out Israel where they go to work on a daily basis. They do not see each other as enemies as their governments do. The people meet each other on the road, at the markets, even in worship places and relate in a cordial manner.

Perhaps, there is no other time that clearly depicts the peace and solidarity among the ordinary people in Israel and Palestine than during the Christmas festivities.

As was witnessed by this writer during the 2016 Christmas celebration to mark symbolic birth of Jesus Christ in Bethlehem, the local inhabitants all were involved in the festivity one way or the other. The people were excited and fully involved in the build-up to commemoration of the birth of Jesus Christ. In almost all the places visited by Pilgrims, the ordinary share this enthusiasm and uncommon affinity with each other.

While the Christian adherents pay attention to the spiritual contents of the celebration, their Arab neighbours took advantage of the huge number of visitors on pilgrimage as tourists who swarmed their vicinity to engage in brisk business, selling religious Items and souvenirs.

As the Nigerian delegation to this year’s Christian Pilgrimage criss-crossed the length and breadth of the Holy Land in Israel, the feeling of oneness amongst the ordinary people could be felt even as evidences of is disagreement at the political level abounds.

For instance, despite the closeness and perhaps cultural linkages of the Palestinians and the Israelis, the authorities there still maintain sharply opposing views about each other. They have refused to recognize each other. In addition, vehicles from both sides bore distinctive colours to differentiate them. Also one of the signs of segregation is the policy that ensures that Palestinian youths who enter Israel almost on a daily basis were subjected to screening and are not allowed to drive in cars to enter Israeli areas.

As was narrated by a Palestinian Arab who volunteered an opinion on the matter, this was a policy meant to put in check the Palestinian youths from gaining access to unauthorized areas.

It is therefore difficult to believe that the people seen intermingling with each other and deeply involved in sharing the joy of the moment, participating in some of the activities like selling and hawking of souvenir items and decorating the streets could be the same people that the political leaders fight for.

Simply put, the ordinary people have nothing against each other and they seemed to be ready to live with one another as long as the issue of land ownership is amicably sorted out.

In most of the Christian Holy cities visited during the pilgrimage organized by the Nigeria Christian Pilgrims Commission, one could hardly differentiate between the Christian, Jewish, Arabs or the Moslem communities. They live together and intermingle in their daily activities without any form of religious conflict.

In fact nothing most aptly captures the brotherly fraternity existing amongst people of various religious beliefs than a story told of a Muslim who once served as the gate-keeper to the famous Christian Temple initiated and built by King David and his famous son, King Solomon in Jerusalem. This man, a Muslim who lives within the neighbourhood was give the power to keep the keys to the Temple and to always open and close the place before a worship session. The man did the job diligently without any complain from the Christian faithful at that time.

Also, some of the Christian holy sites are located within the areas dominated by Muslims yet they guard and preserve such sites as anyone would protect his prized inheritance.

A Palestinian, who works as a tourist guide with one of the popular tourism management firms in Israel, Joseph Hanny, captured the situation of affairs in the troubled middle-east state.

While speaking on what life is like in the area, Hanni who exhibited signs of good grasp of the history, culture and spiritual life of the people said that it is a wrong perception to think that the people fight themselves everyday or that religion is the cause of the conflict they often have.

“For me I live in Israel and we live together in peace. Our relation is very good, we sit together, we discuss our problems and a lot of the Jewish population support the peace process. They support the fact that there must be two states, Israel on the East and Palestine on the side of the West Bank. So there are different opinion held by people but the life here is very good and the relationship between the Arab and the Jewish is cordial. Both communities live in Nazareth as you can see, they live in the same street and neighbourhood.”

Regarding the picture being painted in the outside world that the two sides are in conflict because of religion, Hanni said such is never the case. “Religion is not an important factor. “Muslims and Christians are not divided, Jewish and the Arab people are not divided by religion because religion is not important, what is important is the human being and what is good for them.”

The Arab -born tourist guide now in his early 60s traced the genesis of the misunderstanding between Israel and Palestine to the struggle for the ownership of land in the West Bank and Gaza areas.

Hanni said that the conflict between the Israelis and Palestine started since the Israeli state was launched in 1948. But there are fanatics from both sides who do not agree to that. According to Hanni, while the Jewish people among these fanatics do not agree that there will be Palestinian state within the West Bank and Gaza while those on the Palestinian side also do not want the Jews to stay because they believe that their country was already known before 1948 as far back as in 1917.

He said that it was after the six days war in 1948 that the disputed areas (West Bank and Gaza) came to be under Israeli control. “That is the area of conflict, but that is political, if they allow the people to live together in peace there will be no problem at all and that is the situation”.

But the peace and harmony did not come without a price as another source revealed. As a Jewish Professor in San George University and a native of small Christian community of E-labeun located between Nazareth and the Galilee Sea, Ramez Eid affirmed, one measure taken by the government to stem religious extremism was to outlaw out-door preaching and religious activities in all the neighbourhoods. Prof. Eid explained that the policy has not only discouraged religious fanaticism, but also ensured that everyone comports himself or herself accepting to co-exist within the confines of the law.

“We have in place a law that prohibits public preaching by all religious groups. This has kind of protected one religion from the other and I think that it has greatly reduced inter religious clashes. Preaching is only permitted to be conducted within the churches and on a person to person basis not in the public glare. We do not have clashes between the different religions, Moslem, Christians and the Jewish in Galilee”.

From what has been observed during the pilgrimage, the people have accepted to live in peace and have adjusted to the idea of a multi-religious society. The good news here is that the ordinary people in these areas are leaving together in peace and are ready maintain their historical affinity, despite disagreements at the government and political levels.