The city of Bethlehem, the biblical birthplace for Jesus, is usually bustling with holiday festivities and decor this time of year, but this year, celebrations were called off in the wake of Israel’s war with militant group Hamas.
Where there’s typically tourists, marching bands, pilgrimages and festive lights now stands dozens of Palestinian security forces patrolling the city in the Israeli-occupied West Bank, the Associated Press reported.
Bethlehem typically draws scores of tourists to the West Bank, with celebrations culminating in the Manger Square around Christmastime. Instead of colorful decorations and lights in the Square, there is barbed wire, grey rubble and surrounding security forces, the news wire reported.
Brother John Vinh, a Franciscan monk from Vietnam who has lived in Jerusalem for six years, told the AP in Bethlehem that a nativity scheme in the Square showed baby Jesus wrapped in a white shroud, evoking a similar image of the thousands of children killed in Gaza.
Just about 74 kilometers from Bethlehem stands war-torn Gaza, where over 20,000 Palestinians have been killed since early October, according to the Hamas-run Health ministry in Gaza. About 85 percent of the territory’s 2.3 million residents have been displaced while over 50,000 individuals have been wounded in the violence.
The conflict between Israel and Hamas, which has controlled Gaza since 2007, was triggered on Oct. 7 following the militant group’s surprise incursion into Israel that left an estimated 1,200 people dead, including hundreds of civilians. Israel waged a retaliatory campaign against Hamas, vowing to eliminate the militant group and its military capabilities.
The war’s tensions have spread into the West Bank, with an estimated 300 Palestinians killed by Israeli fire, the AP reported. Civilians in the West Bank live under heavy restrictions that require numerous military checkpoints in the territory and prevent them from exiting the territory to work in Israel.
The cancellation of holiday celebrations is a major blow to Bethlehem’s economy, with tourism accounting for about 70 percent of Bethlehem’s income, mostly during the Christmas season, the AP reported.
Compounded with many major airlines’ cancelled flights to Israel, the cancelled holiday celebration are a major blow to Bethlehem’s economy, 70 percent of which relies on tourism, mostly during the holiday season, the AP reported.
Ala’a Salameh, one of the owners of Afteem Restaurant, which is nearby the square, told the AP the business “can’t justify putting out a tree and celebrating as normal, when some people [in Gaza] don’t even have houses to go to.”
Salmeh said Christmas Eve is typical the busiest day of the year, but on Sunday morning, only one table was taken up.
Instead of the traditional march through Bethlehem, young scouts stood with flags, the AP reported, while another group of teens — standing under a banner reading “Bethlehem’s Christmas bells ring for a cease-fire in Gaza,” — tried to offer small inflatable Santas, but were met with little interest.
“Our message every year on Christmas is one of peace and love, but this year it’s a message of sadness, grief and anger in front of the international community with what is happening and going on in the Gaza Strip,” Bethlehem’s mayor, Hana Haniyeh, said in an address to the crowd, according to the AP.
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