FASSUTA, Israel — Just a few kilometers south of the Lebanese border and the ongoing Israel Defense Forces operation against Hezbollah attack tunnels, the Israeli-Arab Christian village of Fassuta is preparing for an annual Christmas festival that’s expected to bring in thousands of visitors.
Meeting with The Times of Israel days before Christmas, Father Michael Assi, pastor of the Mar Elias church here, claims that the towering Christmas tree standing outside his door is the tallest in the holy land — outstripping even the one in Bethlehem, the most popular destination for pilgrims spending the Christmas season here.
He may not be able to match Bethlehem’s star power, but Assi’s guests will enjoy a stunning view of the hills of Lebanon.
Assi’s community in the Upper Galilee is just two miles (3.5 kilometers) from the UN Blue Line that has separated Israel from its northern neighbor since 2000. Here, every year since 2013, a Christmas market has attracted thousands of visitors from all over Israel.
“All 3,400 inhabitants of Fassuta are Melkite Christians,” Rima Francis, a Fassuta local council representative, told The Times of Israel during our recent visit. “Five years ago, the council came up with the idea of a Christmas market that would show tourists and people from our surroundings — including Muslims and the Jewish mainstream — how the holiday is celebrated in our Christian village.”
The festival, named “Christmassuta,” runs this year from December 27-29. It has proved one of the area’s most successful from its very first year, when it attracted roughly 25,000 Israelis of all ages and faiths.
The residents of Fassuta work for weeks to make sure the event will be a success, coordinating closely with the Israeli police to guarantee security.
Their investment is evident: The cobblestone Al-Zaqaq St., which transects the village’s oldest neighborhood, is decorated with red and gold ornaments. It is along this stretch that the market’s open stalls set up shop each year.
Francis said that during the three-day event, visitors are welcomed with typical Christmas foods prepared by residents. This year as well, she added, visitors will enjoy tours of the village, as well as cultural exhibitions such as folk dances performed in a 1,000-capacity tent traditionally pitched beneath the Christmas tree.
In 2017 the village saw 60,000 visitors. This year, organizers expect even more, Francis said, underlining how tourism does not seem to be affected by the ongoing Operation Northern Shield — Israel’s systematic destruction of underground attack tunnels dug into Israeli territory by Hezbollah.
Rather than speak about the tunnels, though, Francis preferred to focus on the arrangements being made by the local council to accommodate so many visitors. These efforts include coordinating with neighboring towns and villages, who help host.
“Christmas is a good chance for us to attract tourists,” she added, explaining that careful organization is the cornerstone for the event’s success.
An island of prosperity
Fassuta has seen massive development over the last few decades, attaining one of the highest living standards among Israel’s Arab villages, according to the Central Bureau of Statistics and the Bank of Israel, which run a joint study that rates average household income of localities around the country on a scale of one to 10.
Francis said that wealthy Jewish areas generally score nine or 10, while Fassuta — where a dual income household averages a respectable minimum of NIS 20,000 per month — has gradually risen to its current score of six. Arab villages in Israel generally receive scores of two to three.
Francis attributed Fassuta’s relative prosperity to its high education standards. Most of the village’s younger residents pursue university degrees or PhDs, and whether these professionals eventually make a daily commute to Haifa for work or spend weekdays in the country’s high-tech-heavy central region, the vast majority maintain a residence in Fassuta long-term.
In addition, Francis said, efficient management of government funds “helped us develop a lot, because the council focused on improving infrastructures and creating cultural activities,” she said.
Among these activities are English and art classes attended by more than 110 students at “Beit Rima,” which assumed a central role in the community’s cultural life.
The cultural center was founded three years ago by Rima Khoury, an English teacher and fashion designer who lived in Haifa and London before moving to Fassuta, where she used to visit her grandparents on weekends as a child.
“I wanted Fassuta to be the way I felt it as a child, coming from the faraway city up to the mountains of northern Israel,” Khoury said, as she showed a group of journalists the house where her father grew up.
Three years ago, she turned the house into a cultural center, art gallery, and most importantly, an inviting home for the villagers and visitors, as well.
Youngsters in particular, she said, are giving life to Beit Rima by displaying their art, which Khoury proudly showed the audience. Next to Khoury, photos of her family hung on the wall near a shining Christmas tree — a reminder that especially at this time of year, the house works as a community center.
“Christmas is peace, love, and joy,” Khoury said, quoting the three definitive words of a holiday marked by generosity. “Giving is also receiving, and that is the intention of this house,” she said.
Last year, Beit Rima had an open-door policy for the duration of the Christmas market. That brought such a deluge of interest, however, that this year’s visitors will have to pre-schedule.
Khoury’s students Roy Saba and Anwar Jereis, both 18, were also present. Asked whether they would leave the village after high school, which they attend in nearby Ma’alot-Tarshiha, they both said that they “want to stay” in Fassuta and “keep the community together.”
‘Arab, but not Muslim; Israeli but not Jew’
With his black cassock standing out against the church’s golden icons, Assi explained that Fassuta has just a few medical clinics, a post office, an elementary school and the church, “which plays an essential role in bringing the community together.”
“Fassuta is the last Christian community [in Israel] before [you reach] Lebanon,” Assi said, estimating that around 70 percent of the villagers consider themselves religious and attend services. He added that on Sundays, all of the church’s 400 seats are occupied.
The congregation is affiliated with the Melkite Greek Catholic Church, which split from the Greek Orthodox Church in 1724 and accounts for 60% of all Israeli Christians today.
“I’m Arab, but not Muslim; Israeli but not Jew; Catholic but not Latin,” Assi said, laying out the community’s complex identity.
It’s an identity that has been continuously developing ever since the first Christians settled in the area around 500 years ago, fleeing Turkish persecution in Syria and Lebanon.
Local resident and tour guide Munir Najjar recounted the long history while sitting on a sofa in his home’s colorful living room. According to local lore, Fassuta was founded by a Greek soldier who settled here after crossing the Mediterranean. The Romans, Byzantines and Ottomans then followed, explained 67-year-old Najjar, who, in 1972, became the first Israeli-Arab to ever become a registered tour guide.
Today Fassuta is almost entirely Melkite Christian. The small number of Muslim and Druze families who once lived here opted to sell their land to the Christians — many residents of Fassuta once farmed tobacco — and pursue economic prosperity in larger cities.
Asked about the Nation State Law approved by the Knesset this past July, which enshrines Israel as “the national home of the Jewish people,” but omits the state’s commitment to equality for all of its citizens, Najjar said the law is “unfair and unjust.”
“I want this state to go back to the times of [David] Ben-Gurion. He said that [the state] should be equal to everyone, including Druze, Muslims and Christians,” Najjar said, adding that his Israeli passport makes no reference to his religion.
In a further criticism of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who also currently serves as defense minister, Najjar said that residents of northern Israel knew of Hezbollah’s underground attack tunnels well before they were officially discovered. Netanyahu is just taking advantage of the issue for political gain, Najjar charged.
Such military operations are not unfamiliar in this area. In 2006, during the Second Lebanon War, Rima Francis recalled, Fassuta served as a deployment center for IDF troops on their way into Lebanon.
Some older villagers, who while away the hours playing cards at a club for the elderly run by Adela Matar, can even remember the arrival of Israeli forces at the village in 1948, during the War of Independence. Assi said that upon the troops’ approach, it was these citizens — just children, then — who climbed the roof of the Mar Elias church to wave a large white flag.
This week, the locals are hoping to see the church roof whitened again — with snow for Christmas.
Yaakov Schwartz contributed to this report.