Happy Christmas Eve in Bethlehem as Gaza war rages


Happy Christmas Eve in Bethlehem as Gaza war rages

On Happy Christmas Eve, a somber atmosphere enveloped Bethlehem, casting a shadow over the biblical city in the occupied West Bank. The impact of the Gaza war loomed large, and the customary throngs of pilgrims were notably absent from the scene.

The traditional elements of Christmas, including the giant Christmas tree, marching bands, and flamboyant nativity scene, were notably absent in Bethlehem, the revered birthplace of Jesus Christ. Instead of the usual festive lights, the center of town featured a prominent display of a huge Palestinian flag, accompanied by a banner advocating for a ceasefire in Gaza.

Bethlehem, typically bustling with pilgrims and tourists during this season, experienced a significant decline in visitors. Many residents have left the city, and the ongoing Israel-Hamas war since October 7 has further deterred people from visiting.

The conflict erupted when Palestinian militants launched a deadly cross-border attack on southern Israel, prompting a substantial Israeli retaliation.

Palestinian Christians showed little appetite for celebration, with official events largely cancelled by the municipality.

Many in the community were unable to come to terms with the death and displacement of hundreds of thousands of their fellow Palestinians in the Gaza Strip.

"A lot of people are dying for this land," said Nicole Najjar, an 18-year-old student. "It's really hard to celebrate while our people are dying."

Usually a huge Christmas tree is put up at Bethlehem's Church of the Nativity, believed by Christians to be built on the spot where Christ was born.

This year there is an art installation expressing solidarity with Gazans: grey statues of Mary and Joseph placed in a pile of rubble.

On the building next door hung a large banner that read: "Stop the genocide, stop the displacement, lift the blockade" on Gaza.

'Sorrow, loss'

Happy Christmas Eve in Bethlehem as Gaza war rages

The Palestinian militants abducted approximately 250 people, and Israel states that 129 of them remain in Gaza. In response, Israel initiated a relentless bombardment and ground invasion of Gaza, resulting in the death of 20,424 people, predominantly women and children, according to the latest figures from the territory's health ministry.

"This year is different," remarked Mervat Murra, a 50-year-old fashion designer in Bethlehem. She described the atmosphere as marked by sadness, sorrow, destruction, deprivation, and loss. The traditional marching band, known for its loud bagpipes and tambourines, was notably absent.

Bethlehem's Mayor Hanna Hanania conveyed that while the usual Christmas message is one of peace and love, this year's message is characterized by sadness, grief, and anger in response to the events unfolding in the Gaza Strip. He emphasized the need for the international community to hear and address their concerns.

Speaking as he arrived at the Church of the Nativity, the Latin Patriarch of Jerusalem, Pierbattista Pizzaballa, said: "We are here to pray and to ask not only for a ceasefire, a ceasefire is not enough.

"We have to stop theses hostilities and to turn the page because violence generates only violence."

Wearing a black and white keffiyeh, he called for unity among Palestinians of all faiths.

'We cry'

Happy Christmas Eve in Bethlehem as Gaza war rages

Last month, church leaders in Jerusalem, along with the Bethlehem city council, made the decision to abstain from "any unnecessarily festive" Christmas celebrations as a show of solidarity with the people of Gaza.

The West Bank, too, has witnessed an escalation in violence since the onset of the war. Local health officials report that over 300 Palestinians have been killed by Israeli forces or settlers in the region. The somber circumstances have cast a shadow over the usual jubilant Christmas atmosphere in the area.

Mitri Raheb, a pastor hailing from the Gaza Strip, expressed a sentiment of abstaining from celebrations amid the ongoing war. He noted that even in the West Bank, the prevailing mood is one of mourning for the young lives lost to Israeli actions.

The West Bank, occupied by Israel since the 1967 Arab-Israeli War, is grappling with the impact of the conflict. Raheb's plea for Christmas is straightforward: "All we want for Christmas right now is a ceasefire, a sustainable ceasefire to stop this atrocity." He emphasized that Bethlehem, known for giving Jesus to the world, is now in need of peace from the world.

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