The last time Milad Ayyad travelled outside of the Israeli-blockaded Gaza Strip he was just 10 years old, but for Christmas this year he received a “priceless” gift to visit Bethlehem.
The day before Christmas Eve, Israeli authorities gave Ayyad, who is now 30, a blue slip allowing him to visit the biblical birthplace of Jesus Christ.
“It’s a great joy to (finally) get a permit,” Ayyad told AFP, adding that he had tried for years to secure one to no avail.
“I have been hoping to go to Bethlehem for a long time now to celebrate (Christmas) with my relatives whom I haven’t seen in years.”
He is one of 500 Christians from Gaza who have been permitted by Israeli authorities to travel to the occupied West Bank for the holidays this year.
The permit to exit the impoverished Gaza Strip, which has been blockaded by Israel for 15 years, came too late for him to organise to be there on Christmas Day.
Like most Christian Gazans, Ayyad is a Greek Orthodox who usually marks Christmas Day on January 7, meaning he can still look forward to more holiday cheer.
“The celebrations in the city of peace, Bethlehem, are special,” said Ayyad, a student of history whose first name means “birth”.
“They can’t be compared to those in Gaza, which only take place behind the church walls with just a mass.”
Unlike war-scarred Gaza, he said, Bethlehem is full of “joy… even its streets have more spirit than Gaza”.
The number of Christians in Gaza has been in decline for years, many of them having emigrated, particularly after the Islamist movement Hamas seized power in 2007.
According to local church officials, there remain only about 1,000 Christians in the enclave, compared to 7,000 before 2007.
Until the last minute, Ayyad’s journey appeared rife with pitfalls.
To begin with, the Israeli authorities had not indicated when the permit would be issued, leaving matters uncertain. He then had to call his uncle to make sure he was prepared to receive him at his home in Beit Sahur, a town near Bethlehem.
This was followed by organising his trip up to the Erez crossing point to Israel, a mission requiring nerves of steel to make it through the massive ultra-secure barrier that resembles an airport terminal.
But his biggest challenge by far was convincing his father, Suhail Ayyad, that he would be able to make the trip alone.
“I care about my sons like the apples of my eyes,” said the father, who suffers from a serious illness.
The only images in his mind associated with crossing Israeli territory were those of soldiers shooting at Palestinians, leaving him convinced his son would face a similar fate.
In the courtyard of their Gaza home, where an unreliable supply of electricity causes their Christmas tree lights to flicker erratically, it took a group effort to convince Ayyad’s father that the trip is safe.
Even a loquacious neighbour chimed in, insisting that so long as Ayyad had a permit, there was no risk.
On the day of the grand departure, the young man, who did not recall ever having seen an Israeli, peered out at signs pointing the way to Israeli cities.
Sporting a heavy coat to protect himself from “the cold of Bethlehem”, he gazed admiringly at the greenery, remarking that “there are no forests like these in Gaza”.
Freedom of religion
Ayyad arrived in Bethlehem the day after Christmas.
The number of Christians gathered in Manger Square doubtlessly far outnumbered those in all Gaza.
Ayyad took a selfie in front of the giant Christmas tree, visited the Church of the Nativity, lit a candle, and knelt at the cave where Jesus Christ is said to have been born.
His trip to Bethlehem marked a brief relief from his life in crisis-hit Gaza.
The impoverished coastal enclave is still emerging from the effects of war between Hamas and Israel seven months ago, the victims of which “we still mourn”, Ayyad said.
According to Janine di Giovanni, a researcher at Yale University, Christians in Gaza “should have freedom to go to where they want to worship”.
Restrictions on their movement constitute an “absolute affront to religious freedom”, said di Giovanni, who recently authored the book “The Vanishing: Faith, Loss, and the Twilight of Christianity in the Land of the Prophets”.
But Ayyad is nonetheless delighted to have gotten a taste of this freedom this Christmas.
Despite not having boarded a plane or suffered jet lag, his trip from one Palestinian territory to another gave him the impression of having “travelled from one country to another”.