The sometimes bustling biblical birthplace of Jesus resembled a ghost city Sunday after Christmas Eve celebrations in Bethlehem had been referred to as off because of the Israel-Hamas conflict.
The festive lights and Christmas tree that usually enhance Manger Sq. had been lacking, as had been the throngs of international vacationers and jubilant youth marching bands that collect within the West Financial institution city annually to mark the vacation. Dozens of Palestinian safety forces patrolled the empty sq..
“This yr, with out the Christmas tree and with out lights, there’s simply darkness,” stated Brother John Vinh, a Franciscan monk from Vietnam who has lived in Jerusalem for six years.
Vinh stated he at all times involves Bethlehem to mark Christmas, however this yr was particularly sobering. He gazed at a nativity scene in Manger Sq. with a child Jesus wrapped in a white shroud, harking back to the hundreds of kids killed within the combating in Gaza.
Barbed wire surrounded the scene, the gray rubble reflecting not one of the joyous lights and bursts of shade that usually fill the sq. throughout the Christmas season. Chilly, wet climate added to the grim temper.
The cancellation of Christmas festivities was a extreme blow to the city’s economic system. Tourism accounts for an estimated 70% of Bethlehem’s revenue — virtually all of that throughout the Christmas season.
With many main airways canceling flights to Israel, few foreigners are visiting. Native officers say over 70 accommodations in Bethlehem had been compelled to shut, leaving hundreds of individuals unemployed.
Present outlets had been sluggish to open on Christmas Eve, though a number of did as soon as the rain had stopped pouring down. There have been few guests, nonetheless.
“We are able to’t justify placing out a tree and celebrating as regular, when some folks (in Gaza) don’t even have homes to go to,” stated Ala’a Salameh, one of many house owners of Afteem Restaurant, a family-owned falafel restaurant simply steps from the sq..
Salameh stated Christmas Eve is often the busiest day of the yr. “Usually, you’ll be able to’t discover a single chair to take a seat, we’re full from morning until midnight,” stated Salameh. On Sunday morning, only one desk was taken, by journalists taking a break from the rain.
Underneath a banner that learn “Bethlehem’s Christmas bells ring for a cease-fire in Gaza,” a number of youngsters supplied small inflatable Santas, however nobody was shopping for.
As an alternative of their conventional march via the streets of Bethlehem, younger scouts stood silently with flags. A bunch of native college students unfurled a large Palestinian flag as they stood in silence.
An organist with the Church of the Nativity choir, Shukry Mubarak, stated the group modified a lot of the standard Christmas musical repertoire from joyful vacation songs to extra solemn hymns in minor keys.
“Our message yearly on Christmas is one among peace and love, however this yr it’s a message of unhappiness, grief and anger in entrance of the worldwide group with what is occurring and happening within the Gaza Strip,” Bethlehem’s mayor, Hana Haniyeh, stated in an deal with to the group.
Dr. Joseph Mugasa, a pediatrician, was one of many few worldwide guests. He stated his tour group of 15 folks from Tanzania was “decided” to return to the area regardless of the scenario.
“I’ve been right here a number of instances, and it’s fairly a novel Christmas, as often there’s lots of people and quite a lot of celebrations,” he stated. “However you’ll be able to’t rejoice whereas individuals are struggling, so we’re unhappy for them and praying for peace.”
Greater than 20,000 Palestinians have been killed and greater than 50,000 wounded throughout Israel’s air and floor offensive in opposition to Gaza’s Hamas rulers, in keeping with well being officers there, whereas some 85% of the territory’s 2.3 million residents have been displaced.
The conflict was triggered by Hamas’ lethal assault Oct. 7 on southern Israel by which militants killed about 1,200 folks, most of them civilians, and took greater than 240 hostages.
The Gaza conflict has been accompanied by a surge in West Financial institution violence, with some 300 Palestinians killed by Israeli fireplace.
The combating has affected life throughout the Israeli-occupied territory. Since Oct. 7, entry to Bethlehem and different Palestinian cities within the West Financial institution has been tough, with lengthy traces of motorists ready to move army checkpoints. The restrictions have additionally prevented tens of hundreds of Palestinians from exiting the territory to work in Israel.
Amir Michael Giacaman opened his retailer, “Il Bambino,” which sells olive wooden carvings and different souvenirs, for the primary time since Oct. 7. There have been no vacationers, and few native residents have cash to spare as a result of those that labored in Israel have been caught at residence.
“When folks have more money, they go purchase meals,” stated his spouse, Safa Giacaman. “This yr, we’re telling the Christmas story. We’re celebrating Jesus, not the tree, not Santa Claus, she stated, as their daughter Mikaella ran across the abandoned retailer.
The combating in Gaza was on the minds of the small Christian group in Syria, which is dealing with a civil conflict now in its thirteenth yr. Christians stated they had been looking for pleasure, regardless of the continuing strife of their homeland and in Gaza.
“The place is the love? What have we completed with love?” stated the Rev. Elias Zahlawi, a priest in Yabroud, a metropolis about 80 kilometers (50 miles) north of Damascus. “We’ve thrown God exterior the realm of humanity and sadly, the church has remained silent within the face of this painful actuality.”
Some tried to seek out inspiration within the spirit of Christmas.
Latin Patriarch Pierbattista Pizzaballa, arriving from Jerusalem for the standard procession to the Church of the Nativity, informed the sparse crowd that Christmas was a “purpose to hope” regardless of the conflict and violence.
The pared-down Christmas was consistent with the unique message of the vacation and illustrated the various methods the group is coming collectively, stated Stephanie Saldaña, who’s initially from San Antonio, Texas, and has lived in Jerusalem and Bethlehem for the previous 15 years together with her husband, a parish priest on the St Joseph Syriac Catholic Church.
“We really feel Christmas as extra actual than ever, as a result of we’re ready for the prince of peace to return. We’re ready for a miracle to cease this conflict,” Saldaña stated.
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