JERUSALEM (Reuters) – Along the ancient walls of Jerusalem’s Old City, a man dressed as Santa Claus tries to raise holiday cheer from atop a camel by offering free Christmas trees to residents.
The man behind the beard is Issa Kassissieh, a Palestinian Christian who has in recent years distributed both Christmas spirit and trees, provided by the municipality, in a city sacred to Jews, Muslims and Christians alike.
His mission, he says, is “to bring joy and love and peace to the Holy Land”.
This year, as ever, those qualities are badly needed.
Five miles (eight km) down the road in the Israeli-occupied West Bank, on the other side of a towering Israeli concrete military barrier, is the center of the biblical story of Jesus’s birth, the Palestinian town of Bethlehem.
The town is enjoying its busiest tourist year in two decades, with foreign pilgrims coming in large numbers, taking advantage of a relative lull in Israeli-Palestinian tension.
But this Christmas, Israeli authorities have barred the 1,000 or so Christians living in the Palestinian Gaza Strip from visiting either Bethlehem or Jerusalem, citing security reasons.
Reporting by Dedi Hayun; Writing by Rami Ayyub; Editing by Kevin Liffey