Storefronts and billboards in Jish (“Gush Halav” in Hebrew) this week were decked with snowmen, holly wreaths and inflatable Santa Clauses, bringing a dose of Christmas cheer to this Upper Galilee village a few kilometers from the Lebanon border.

The pine trees that dot the town and the whiff of smoldering fireplaces completed the yuletide ambiance when The Jerusalem Post visited the village on Mount Merom, 13 km. north of Safed, last week.

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The town of around 3,000 is predominantly Maronite, with around 65 percent of the population adhering to the branch of Eastern Catholicism and living in harmony, residents say, with Muslim and Greek Catholic (Melkite) minorities.

Jish has the largest Maronite population of in Israel, where around 7,000 live mostly in Jish and the neighboring village of Ikrit, as well as in Nahariya, where former members of the South Lebanese Army and their families (estimated to number 2,000 to 2,500 people today) were relocated after the IDF withdrew from Lebanon in 2000.

Like Israel’s other small, non-Jewish communities, the Maronites of the Galilee are a population in flux, cut off from their brethren in neighboring countries. They continue their assimilation into Israeli society while trying to ensure that their customs carry on into the next generation. Those in Jish are also waging an ongoing battle with authorities to regain land near Kibbutz Bar’am, the one-time location of the Maronite village of Kafr Bir’am. Today, around half of the Maronite residents of Jish trace their heritage to Kafr Bir’am, residents say.

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