Bethlehem Cancels Christmas Celebrations Amid Israel-Hamas War

25 December 2023

The biblical birthplace of Jesus, Bethlehem, faces a grim Christmas as festivities are cancelled due to the ongoing conflict between Israel and Hamas.

The usually bustling town of Bethlehem, known as the birthplace of Jesus, was eerily quiet this Christmas as celebrations were cancelled amidst the Israel-Hamas war. The festive lights and Christmas tree that adorn Manger Square were absent, and the usual influx of tourists and jubilant youth marching bands was nowhere to be seen. Instead, Palestinian security forces patrolled the empty square, adding to the somber atmosphere. The cancellation of Christmas festivities has had a devastating impact on Bethlehem’s economy, as tourism accounts for an estimated 70% of its income, mostly during the Christmas season.

A Dark Christmas in Bethlehem

The absence of the Christmas tree and festive lights in Manger Square has left Bethlehem in darkness this holiday season. Brother John Vinh, a Franciscan monk from Vietnam, expressed his disappointment at the lack of Christmas spirit. As he gazed at a nativity scene with a baby Jesus wrapped in a white shroud, Vinh couldn’t help but be reminded of the thousands of children killed in the fighting in Gaza. The scene was surrounded by barbed wire, reflecting none of the usual joyous lights and bursts of color. The cancellation of Christmas festivities has been a severe blow to the town’s economy, with over 70 hotels forced to close and thousands of people left unemployed.

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A Silent Night in Bethlehem

The streets of Bethlehem, which are usually filled with bustling crowds, were eerily quiet this Christmas Eve. Gift shops were slow to open, and few visitors were seen in the area. Ala’a Salameh, the owner of a falafel restaurant near Manger Square, explained that it was impossible to celebrate when people in Gaza were suffering. The usually busy restaurant had only one table occupied by journalists seeking shelter from the rain. Instead of the traditional march through the streets, young scouts stood silently with flags, and local students unfurled a massive Palestinian flag. The Church of the Nativity choir changed their repertoire to more solemn hymns, reflecting the sadness and grief felt by the community.

A Message of Sadness and Prayers for Peace

Bethlehem’s mayor, Hana Haniyeh, addressed the crowd, expressing the town’s message of sadness, grief, and anger towards the international community for the ongoing conflict in Gaza. Dr. Joseph Mugasa, a pediatrician from Tanzania, was one of the few international visitors who came to Bethlehem despite the situation. Mugasa acknowledged the unique Christmas experience but emphasized the need to pray for peace and show solidarity with those who are suffering. The war between Israel and Hamas has resulted in the deaths of thousands of Palestinians and displaced a significant portion of Gaza’s population.

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Economic and Social Impact of the Conflict

The Israel-Hamas war has not only affected the celebrations in Bethlehem but has also had a wider impact on the region. The surge in violence has resulted in the deaths of hundreds of Palestinians in the West Bank, and access to Bethlehem and other Palestinian towns has been difficult due to military checkpoints. The restrictions have also prevented tens of thousands of Palestinians from working in Israel, leading to financial hardships for many families. Local businesses, such as Amir Michael Giacaman’s store, have suffered greatly, with no tourists and few local residents having money to spare.

Conclusion: This year, Bethlehem’s Christmas celebrations were marred by the ongoing conflict between Israel and Hamas. The cancellation of festivities has had a devastating impact on the town’s economy, leaving many unemployed and businesses struggling to survive. Despite the somber atmosphere, the small Christian community in Bethlehem and Syria tried to find inspiration in the spirit of Christmas and hope for peace. As the world continues to grapple with the consequences of the Israel-Hamas war, the people of Bethlehem remain resilient, praying for a miracle to end the conflict and bring peace to the region.

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