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Bethlehem ‘without Christmas trees, without lights’ due to Israel-Hamas war

24 Dec 2023 3 minute read
Christmas in Manger Square, 2006. Photo by Footballkickit at English Wikipedia is licensed under CC BY 3.0.

Bethlehem, the normally bustling biblical birthplace of Jesus, resembles a ghost town this Christmas Eve, with celebrations called off due to the Israel-Hamas war.

The festive lights and Christmas tree that normally decorate Manger Square are missing, as are the foreign tourists who gather each year to mark the holiday.

Dozens of Palestinian security forces patrol the empty square.

Gift shops have been slow to open on Christmas Eve, although a few did open their doors once the rain stopped pouring down. There are few visitors, however.

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


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, symbolising the hundreds of children killed in the fighting in Gaza.

Barbed wire surrounds the scene, with grey rubble added to the spectacle reflecting none of the lights and bursts of colour that normally fill the square during the Christmas season.

Ala’a Salameh, one of the owners of Afteem Restaurant, a family-owned falafel restaurant just steps from the square, said: “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.”

Mr 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,” he said. This year, just one table was taken – by journalists sheltering from the rain.

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

Economic blow

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 cancelling flights to Israel, few foreigners are visiting. Local officials say around 70 hotels in Bethlehem have been forced to close, leaving thousands of people unemployed.

More than 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 October 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 October 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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