Palestinian Christmas in Israel festive, yet restive | World| Breakings news and perspectives from around the globe | DW | 24.12.2012
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Palestinian Christmas in Israel festive, yet restive

Christian Palestinians in Israel are a minority among a minority. In the Arab city of Maghar, Muslims, Druze and Christians co-exist in fragile peace as the Christian community prepares for its biggest day of the year.

Only a few kilometers off Lake Genezareth and the cities Tiberias and Kapernaum, Christmas preparations are in full swing. The streets of the Christian area in the town of Maghar are decorated with lights, the shop windows are offering Christmas decorations, young girls are wearing Christmas dresses to school.

The community has put particular effort into decorating the town's single church. "If I look at the illuminated church, I'm overwhelmed by a festive feeling," says Naim Artoul. The 24-year-old studies medicine in Germany, and has come back home just for Christmas.

Christian Tannous, who is also studying medicine in Germany, said their Christian community in Maghar comprises about 5,000 Christians. "Therefore it's more quiet than in Nazareth," Tannous said.

Bethlehemand Nazareth are the focal points for the Christmas pilgrims and in those towns, tourism flourishes. In the Christian part of Maghar, however, the locals are among themselves.

Chaos and Christmas spirit

A decorated Christmas tree

Arab Christians celebrate Christmas similarly to how it's done in Europe

With Arab Christmas, holy mass takes place on December 25. Outside the church, it's busy and chaotic, but nonetheless still festive. After mass, people meet for a chat, there are children playing everywhere and eventually, the families retire home.

"We then celebrate Christmas like in Europe - only that there's no Raclette, instead our traditional Mangal, a type of grilled meat," explained Atoul. As every Christian family sets up a charcoal grill outside their home, there's so much smoke, you can hardly see the sky, he explained laughingly.

After plenty of food and drink, Baba Noel - as Santa Claus is known as in Arabic - comes round and hands out sweets to the children.

Maghar is in Israel's fertile north, in historical Galilee, stretching from the Mediterranean in the West to the Jordan valley in the east and Mount Hermon in the North. The roughly 20,000 inhabitants of the Arab city fall into three religious groups: 57 percent are Druze, 20 percent Muslim and 23 percent Catholic.

The town is next to the Hazour Mountain and the Druze live in the areas higher up on the hillside, while the Moslims and Christians live down in the valley. The different religions define the different areas of Maghar and people know exactly who is from where and at which times it's ok to walk through the others' neighborhood.

Minority within a minority

Christmas decorations in a shop window

Shops offer all kinds of Christmas decorations for the holidays

Palestinians are a minority in Israel, making up around 20 percent of the population. The Christians among those Palestinians are again a minority: Only around 8 percent are Christian, the rest Muslim or Druze. The example of Maghar shows how the Arab minority is divided as a result of their different religious beliefs.

"I mostly stay in my area and basically it's quiet here," says Tannous about the everyday life in the city. But that quieude is fragile: In February 2005, there were protests after a rumor that a young Christian had published nude pictures of a Druze girl on the Internet. Thousands of Druze rioted in the Christian area, setting cars and houses on fire and looting shops.

The consequences of that incident can still be felt today. The different groups continue to be disconnected, without dialogue about what's happened. "Among the young generation, the gap is growing," said Tannous.

Artoul added, "my hairdresser is Druze and I don't have a problem going shopping in a Druze supermarket. But there's always a bit of an uncomfortable feeling."

That sense of something uncomfortable is one shared by many in Israel, a country marked by religious and national conflict.

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