“O little town of Bethlehem, how still we see thee lie…”

The site of Jesus’ birth stands eerily silent this Christmas Eve. Manger Square, normally teeming with people, is deserted, the customary carols, festive lights, and towering tree conspicuously absent.

It’s a heart-wrenching irony that the biblical birthplace of Jesus will this year be devoid of the festive spirit that usually fills its streets on Christmas Eve and Christmas Day.

The “little town of Bethlehem,” a place of profound significance for Christians worldwide, is usually a vibrant hub of activity during the holiday season. This year, however, the town in the occupied West Bank, ten kilometres south of Jerusalem, is cloaked in an unsettling silence. While religious ceremonies will proceed as usual within churches, the Palestinian Authority has made the difficult decision to cancel public festivities in recognition of the region’s profound grief over the loss of thousands of innocent lives during the ongoing Israel-Hamas conflict in the Gaza Strip.

Watch footage of the square here.

While the residents and business community have acknowledged the decision as a necessary gesture of solidarity with those Palestinians affected by the onslaught in Gaza, there was still a sense of disappointment among them.

As the year draws to a close, Bethlehem, a town heavily dependent on tourism and pilgrimage, anticipates the festive season. Around 70% of Bethlehem’s economy is driven by international visitors, according to Mayor Hana Haniyeh. However, he told the Associated Press that while the economic impact of the decision is significant, it pales in comparison to the hardships faced by the people of Gaza.

The absence of the usual throngs of visitors from all around the world – on average, 1.5 million to 2 million foreign tourists visit Bethlehem annually – is deeply felt. Several governments have advised their citizens against traveling to the Holy Land due to the ongoing conflict, and those who do venture to the region have found that travel insurance premiums have risen significantly. To exacerbate the situation, the closure of border crossings by Israel has made it cumbersome to reach Bethlehem and other Palestinian towns in the West Bank. Lengthy queues of vehicles awaiting clearance at military checkpoints have become a common sight.

Owing to these factors, the hotels, restaurants, and gift shops in Bethlehem stand virtually vacant. In front of the Nativity Church, Palestinian security personnel patrol the desolate, empty Manger Square, where the customary carols, decorations, twinkling lights, and towering Christmas tree are noticeably absent. The eagerly awaited ceremony of the Christmas tree lighting, which always includes a performance by a singer from Malta, was scheduled to feature Sarah Micallef Muscat this year. There is only one ‘decoration’ in the Square this year: a poignant nativity scene portraying the birth of Jesus amidst piles of rubble and barbed wire, creating a stark contrast between the message of peace and hope associated with Christmas and the harsh realities of war, death, and displacement.

Salt on the wound

To compound Bethlehem’s economic woes, even domestic tourism – Palestinian Israelis who would traditionally cross into the West Bank to celebrate Christmas in Bethlehem – has suffered a setback this year due to Israel’s restrictions on travel to and from the occupied Palestinian territories.

Furthermore, the restrictions have also prevented many Palestinians from exiting the territory to work in Israel. The lost income will, of corse, reflect in less spending as Bethlehem residents who used to work in Israel struggle to make ends meet. To this, one must add the fact that the Palestinian Authority has for years not been receiving from Israel the full amount of tax revenues collected on ithe PA’s behalf. The Palestinian government relies heavily on these funds to support its public sector workforce, which includes over 140,000 employees, as well as 53,000 retirees. However, due to Israel’s ongoing withholding of critical tax revenues, exacerbated by inflation and declining donor support, the authorities in the occupied West Bank are facing immense challenges in meeting their payroll obligations.

Against this backdrop of hardship, a BBC report quoted Father Eissa Thaldjiya, who, standing in the unusually deserted Nativity Church, remarked that Bethlehem now resembles a mere ghost of its former self.

“I’ve been a priest in this church for 12 years. I was born in Bethlehem, and I’ve never seen it like this – even during the Covid-19 pandemic,” he says. “We have brothers and sisters in Gaza – this is what makes it difficult to celebrate… but it’s good to be united in prayers.”

Photos: Hazem Bader/AFP

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