IMAGE: CNS photo/Debbie Hill
By Judith Sudilovsky
BETHLEHEM, West Bank (CNS) — Though
the Christmas tree was lit in Nativity Square in the traditional ceremony, and
some traditional pre-Christmas parades have taken place, the Christmas spirit
this year in Bethlehem has been dampened by the political situation which,
since October, has taken the lives of almost 100 Palestinians and 22 Israelis.
Few pilgrims are visiting the
holy sites — or the souvenir shops that line Manger Square — and there is none
of the customary festive caroling at the square in the evenings leading up to
Christmas Eve. Hawkers who come from Hebron to sell Santa Claus hats and
Christmas-themed headbands sit dejectedly on stone pillars, half-heartedly
trying to sell their wares to locals who continue walking past them. It takes
them more money for the taxi ride to Bethlehem than what they make during the
day, said Jasan Zided, 38, who has six children to support.
One souvenir seller noted that
while some pilgrim groups from Nigeria and East Asia are still visiting
Bethlehem, the big spenders like the Russian groups are no longer coming,
mainly because of their involvement in Syria and the November attack on the
Russian airplane in Egypt.
Among the few pilgrims was
Monica Reina, 47, from Madrid, who was on a group pilgrimage.
“We have come on pilgrimage
to the Holy Land. We are not afraid, we always feel protected by God,” she
said. “But there are very few people here, which is sad. If we as
Christians stop coming here, then the Holy Land will cease to exist as the Holy
“It is very sad,” said
Veronica Alhihi, 22, a Catholic teacher at the Ephpheta Paul VI Pontifical
Institute for the deaf, who was on an outing to see the Christmas tree with the
school’s first and second graders. “It is hard to be happy when there is
death. Even though we Christians all around the world feel the joy of Jesus’
birth, there is a deep sadness inside of us.”
Palestinians have been
frustrated by an increase in the number of Israeli settlements on their
territory and continued restrictions on movement, which Israel says are
necessary for security. The most recent violence that has limited the tourists
followed attempts by extremist Jews to visit and pray at the Temple Mount/Haram al-Sharif compound,
which is holy to both Jews and Muslim. Riots have broken out in the West Bank,
and Palestinians have stabbed Israeli civilians as well as Israeli police and
soldiers, both within the Green Line and in the West Bank.
In solidarity with the difficult
situation, the celebrations will be modest this year, said Bethlehem Mayor Vera Baboun. Rather than shooting
off fireworks after the lighting of the Christmas tree, Bethlehem officials
asked churches to ring their bells, she said.
“Bethlehem is all about
peace. It is a city of peace, but it is a walled city,” said Baboun. “The
situation here is very contradictory. Every year is becoming worse. We lit the
Christmas tree, but with sadness. A word like sadness should not even be
expressed in Bethlehem. We have the right to celebrate the blessing of Our Lord,
and our children deserve to live that joy despite the sadness.”
Bethlehem has a 27 percent
unemployment rate and a 22 percent poverty rate and not enough budget to help
all the needy, she said. Many Christian organizations try to fill in some of
the gaps, she said.
Bethlehem depends on the tourism
industry, which has been hard hit for the past two months. Hotels are reporting
dismal occupancy rates and no new reservations for the coming months, noted Manhal Assaf, director of the
Palestinian Ministry of Tourism Information Office in Bethlehem.
Big dance parties and public
celebrations, which local young people and Israeli Christian Arabs liked to
attend, will not be held this year, though smaller indoor private events will
be take place, said Assaf.
“Last year, we had full
occupancy on Dec. 24 and Dec. 25,” she said. “It is very quiet now.”
Adnan Tarrabin, 45, said on a
good day he would get some 200-300 customers at his coffee shop. Now he just
spends the time lounging out in the winter sun in front of the shop. By midday,
he had only had 15 customers, he said.
“Even last year after the
Gaza war was better than this year,” he said. “Here in Bethlehem, it
is quiet. The problem is in the whole Middle East, and tourists are afraid to
come here because of Syria, but here it is safe. The Israeli people are our
cousins, we are all human beings and we want peace. This circle of violence is
not good for anyone, not for young people, not for anybody. The two sides need
to sit down together and make peace. When we have a good economy we don’t have
Small family-owned handicraft
workshops that depend on the Christmas visitors to sell their wares have
perhaps been the hardest hit. Most are owned by Christian families. Several
owners were going from store to store with bags of olive wood carvings and
crosses, hoping to sell a few items to store owners. One shop owner bought a
few smoothened and shined olive wood Jerusalem crosses from one man, but said
he doubted they would be sold.
“I don’t know how we will
celebrate Christmas this year,” said the handicraft workshop owner, who
declined to give his name, as he left the store with several plastic bags of
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