Bethlehem Resembles A Ghost Town, Christmas Celebrations Canceled Amid War In Gaza

BETHLEHEM, West Bank (AP) — The normally bustling biblical birthplace of Jesus resembled a ghost town on Sunday, as Christmas Eve celebrations in Bethlehem were called off due to the Israel-Hamas war.

The festive lights and Christmas tree that normally decorate Manger Square were missing, as were the throngs of foreign tourists who gather each year to mark the holiday. Dozens of Palestinian security forces patrolled the empty square.

The gift shops were slow to open on Christmas Eve, although a few did once the rain had stopped pouring down. There were few visitors, however.

“This year, without the Christmas tree and without lights, there’s just darkness,” said Brother John Vinh, a Franciscan monk from Vietnam who has lived in Jerusalem for six years.

A nativity scene decorated to honor the victims in Gaza is displayed in Manger Square, near the Nativity Church, which is traditionally believed to be the birthplace of Jesus, on Christmas Eve, in the West Bank city of Bethlehem, Sunday, Dec. 24, 2023. (AP Photo/Mahmoud Illean)
A nativity scene decorated to honor the victims in Gaza is displayed in Manger Square, near the Nativity Church, which is traditionally believed to be the birthplace of Jesus, on Christmas Eve, in the West Bank city of Bethlehem, Sunday, Dec. 24, 2023. (AP Photo/Mahmoud Illean)

He said he always comes to Bethlehem to mark Christmas, but this year was especially sobering, as he gazed at a nativity scene in Manger Square with a baby Jesus wrapped in a white shroud, reminiscent of the hundreds of children killed in the fighting in Gaza. Barbed wire surrounded the scene, the grey rubble reflecting none of the joyous lights and bursts of color that normally fill the square during the Christmas season.

“We can’t justify putting out a tree and celebrating as normal, when some people (in Gaza) don’t even have houses to go to,” said Ala’a Salameh, one of the owners of Afteem Restaurant, a family-owned falafel restaurant just steps from the square.

People walk by the Church of the Nativity, in the West Bank town of Bethlehem, Friday, Dec. 23, 2023. Bethlehem is having a subdued Christmas after officials in Jesus' traditional birthplace decided to forgo celebrations due to the Israel-Hamas war. (AP Photo/Mahmoud Illean)
People walk by the Church of the Nativity, in the West Bank town of Bethlehem, Friday, Dec. 23, 2023. Bethlehem is having a subdued Christmas after officials in Jesus’ traditional birthplace decided to forgo celebrations due to the Israel-Hamas war. (AP Photo/Mahmoud Illean)

Salameh said Christmas Eve is usually the busiest day of the year. “Normally, you can’t find a single chair to sit, we’re full from morning till midnight,” said Salameh. This year, just one table was taken, by journalists taking a break from the rain.

Salameh said his restaurant was operating at about 15% of normal business and wasn’t able to cover operating costs. He estimated that even after the war ends, it will take another year for tourism to return to Bethlehem as normal.

The cancellation of Christmas festivities is a severe blow to the town’s economy. Tourism accounts for an estimated 70% of Bethlehem’s income — almost all of that during the Christmas season.

With many major airlines canceling flights to Israel, few foreigners are visiting. Local officials say over 70 hotels in Bethlehem have been forced to close, leaving thousands of people unemployed.

Over 20,000 Palestinians have been killed and more than 50,000 wounded during Israel’s air and ground offensive against Gaza’s Hamas rulers, according to health officials there, while some 85% of the territory’s 2.3 million residents have been displaced. The war was triggered by Hamas’ deadly assault Oct. 7 on southern Israel in which militants killed about 1,200 people, most of them civilians, and took more than 240 hostages.

The fighting in Gaza has also affected life in the West Bank. Since Oct. 7, access to Bethlehem and other Palestinian towns in the Israeli-occupied territory has been difficult, with long lines of motorists waiting to pass military checkpoints. The restrictions have also prevented tens of thousands of Palestinians from exiting the territory to work in Israel.

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