Church bells echo through the labyrinth-like streets of Bethlehem. With Christmas approaching, the city in the Israeli-occupied West Bank should be teeming with visitors. But this year, it is almost deserted.
Local leaders made the decision last month to scale back festivities in solidarity with the Palestinian population, as heavy fighting raged between Israel and Hamas in the devastated Gaza Strip.
More than 20,000 Palestinians have been killed during Israel’s air and ground offensive, according to the Hamas-controlled Ministry of Health in Gaza and nearly 85% of the strip’s total population has been displaced.
The war was sparked by Hamas’ terror attack on October 7 on southern Israel in which at least 1,200 people were killed and more than 240 others taken hostage.
Many here have ties to Gaza through loved ones and friends, and a sense of misery has fallen upon the city revered by Christians as the birthplace of Jesus Christ.
Decorations that once adorned neighborhoods have been removed. The parades and religious celebrations have been canceled. In the city center, the traditional enormous Christmas tree of Manger Square is conspicuously absent.
Traveling into Bethlehem, about eight kilometers south of Jerusalem, isn’t ordinarily an easy journey. The Israeli-built West Bank barrier restricts movement, as do the various checkpoints leading in and out of the city. It’s only got worse since Hamas’ brazen attack.
Since October 7, Israel has restricted movement in Bethlehem and other Palestinian towns in the West Bank, with military checkpoints allowing access in and out, impacting Palestinians trying to get to work.
The occupied territory has also experienced a surge in violence, with at least 300 Palestinians killed in Israeli attacks, according to the Palestinian health ministry.
He and his family live in Al Shawawra, a Palestinian village near Bethlehem, and visit each Christmas “because our relationship with our Christian brothers is a strong relationship.”
He explains: “We join them in their celebrations, and they also join us in our celebrations. But this year’s holiday season is very bad.”
Walking down the cobble-stone streets, the impact of the conflict is evident.
Businesses were banking on a busy festive period after suffering through the hardships and travel restrictions of the coronavirus pandemic. But without the usual crowds of tourists and the faithful, many of the hotels, shops and restaurants have shuttered.
Bethlehem’s economy depends on pilgrims and tourism, explains third-generation shop owner Rony Tabash, who stands outside his store waiting for customers who will never arrive.
Souvenirs and intricately carved olive wood carvings of the nativity scene sit on shelves gathering dust. Tabash’s store is one of the handful to remain open, out of a wish to support the skilled artisans that delicately make his merchandise.
Tabash brings his father with him to the shop each day to get him out of the house. His grandfather opened the store back in 1927 and this place, along with the square and its famous church, have become “part of our heart.”
“We’ve never seen Christmas like this,” he continues. “Since three months, honestly, we don’t have one sale. I don’t want to keep my father at home. I don’t want to give up hope.”
Even the Church of the Nativity – which became the first World Heritage site in the Palestinian territories in 2012 – is largely empty. In a normal year, queues of hundreds would snake around the car park outside with pilgrims patiently waiting to enter its grotto, considered since the 2nd Century to be the exact location of Christ’s birth. A 14-pointed silver star set into the marble floor marks the precise spot where Jesus is said to have been born.
In the 4th Century, Emperor Constantine founded a church on the site, which was destroyed in the year 529, only to be replaced by larger structures, which form the basis of the church today.
Inside, it would usually be standing room only. But this year, the fighting in Gaza has changed everything. Now, you can practically hear a pin drop.
“I have never seen it like this,” says Father Spiridon Sammour, a Greek Orthodox priest at the Church of the Nativity.
“Christmas is joy, love and peace. We have no peace. We have no joy,” he says solemnly. “It is out of our hands, and we pray for the leaders who will make the decisions [all] over the world to God to help them, give them his light to make peace here and all over the world.