Christmas in Bethlehem
View From The East By Daoud Kuttab

(December 28) - There is no date in any calendar year that is more important
for family get togethers than the holidays. This year both Christmas and Id
al-Fitr fell on almost identical dates.

This year is perhaps the worst facing Palestinian families in decades: The
multi-layered Israeli siege on Palestinian territories has forced various
members of the same family to celebrate alone.

Palestinians like to spend the holidays visiting the grave sites of deceased
family members, visiting prisoners, and of course large families like
getting together, often at the home of their parents. Let me detail some of
the obstacles facing Palestinians this particular holiday season.

First, there is absolutely no direct connection between Gaza and the West
Bank. For families with a son or daughter living in either location, the
idea of having a Christmas meal together or enjoying an Id get-together is
impossible. Not only is the safe-passage road closed, but the regular
crossing at the Erez checkpoint is also off limits to Palestinians whether
going in or out of Gaza.

True, the airport is open. So theoretically one can fly from Gaza's
international airport to Jordan and then attempt to cross into the West Bank
from Jordan. But unless one's destination is Jericho, getting to any other
West Bank city is another story.

Connections between the West Bank and Jordan, where intermarriage is common,
are severely restricted, even though the King Hussein bridge is
theoretically open. For West Bank Palestinians to cross the bridge they have
to ride the only bus given access to the terminal point, which leaves and
returns to the Istiraha ("resting place") in Jericho. The trick is to get to
this bus depot which is within area "A," under full Palestinian control.

All main roads to Jericho are sealed by soldiers. So for a vehicle to enter
the city in order to deposit or collect stranded passengers, only side dirt
roads can be used. And it is precisely these side roads that the Israeli
army has been systematically closing, either by piling up mountains of dirt
(which are quickly removed) or their latest trick of digging deep trenches
(which are harder to deal with).

The recent rains have made many of these side roads much more difficult to
navigate. Trails of jammed taxis can be seen on many of these roads. Of
course, if cars can't move, people can walk, and that is what many have had
to do, sometimes walking three or four kilometers just to reach the nearest
paved road in the hope of getting a ride to safety.

Jerusalem residents, who don't have to use the Istiraha and can travel the
Israeli-built bypass road, have a new, much more difficult obstacle. They
need permits to cross. The Israeli Interior Ministry issues the permits. But
since employees of the ministry have been on strike for two months,
demanding better wages, there is no one to issue the permits. And so,
although Palestinians from Jerusalem can safely reach the Israeli terminal
at the bridge, they can't leave because they don't possess the dreaded exit
pass.

For families of prisoners, there is also a Catch-22 . The Israeli Prisons
Service says that regular visits can take place. But to get to the prisons
which are all inside Israel, Palestinians need permits to enter Israel. And
since the West Bank and Gaza are under siege, no such permits are being
issued. Even the traditional release of a few prisoners in honor of the
holidays doesn't seem to be a consideration this season.

Travel between cities has also been curtailed. Huge cement blocks,
mountains, dirt, or deep trenches are used to close off whichever arteries
the Israeli soldiers are unwilling to man.

Animals are back in fashion as an effective way of transporting people and
their belongings out of besieged areas. So with the exception of the Erez
crossing and the international borders, Palestinians wishing to get from one
place to another can eventually find a way.

For Gazan students in the West Bank, or people with relatives in Jordan or
Israel, the choice is to stay put or spend the holidays in student
dormitories or with friends.

If the aim of the Israeli blockade is to break the Palestinian spirit, the
results have been a major failure The blockade is producing results and they
are in human and emotional scars that will take a long time to heal.

And if, on the eve of the current peace talks, the aim is to force
Palestinians to accept unacceptable compromises, this blockade hasn't had
much of an effect on Palestinian Authority Chairman Yasser Arafat, who is
free to travel by air.

But if anything, this inhuman blockade has served to strengthen Palestinian
unity and despite all odds, it has increased hopes for a better future.

Happy New Year to all.