UNITED STATES NEWS

On Christmas Eve, Bethlehem resembles a ghost town. Celebrations are halted due to Israel-Hamas war.

Dec 24, 2023, 2:34 AM | Updated: 11:16 am

BETHLEHEM, West Bank (AP) — The typically bustling biblical birthplace of Jesus resembled a ghost town Sunday after Christmas Eve celebrations in Bethlehem were called off due to the Israel-Hamas war.

The festive lights and Christmas tree that normally decorate Manger Square were missing, as were the throngs of foreign tourists and jubilant youth marching bands that gather in the West Bank town each year to mark the holiday. Dozens of Palestinian security forces patrolled the empty square.

“This year, without the Christmas tree and without lights, there’s just darkness,” said Brother John Vinh, a Franciscan monk from Vietnam who has lived in Jerusalem for six years.

Vinh said he always comes to Bethlehem to mark Christmas, but this year was especially sobering. He gazed at a nativity scene in Manger Square with a baby Jesus wrapped in a white shroud, reminiscent of the thousands of children killed in the fighting in Gaza.

Barbed wire surrounded the scene, the grey rubble reflecting none of the joyous lights and bursts of color that normally fill the square during the Christmas season. Cold, rainy weather added to the grim mood.

The cancellation of Christmas festivities was a severe blow to the town’s economy. Tourism accounts for an estimated 70% of Bethlehem’s income — almost all of that during the Christmas season.

With many major airlines canceling flights to Israel, few foreigners are visiting. Local officials say over 70 hotels in Bethlehem were forced to close, leaving thousands of people unemployed.

Gift shops were slow to open on Christmas Eve, although a few did once the rain had stopped pouring down. There were few visitors, however.

“We can’t justify putting out a tree and celebrating as normal, when some people (in Gaza) don’t even have houses to go to,” said Ala’a Salameh, one of the owners of Afteem Restaurant, a family-owned falafel restaurant just steps from the square.

Salameh said Christmas Eve is usually the busiest day of the year. “Normally, you can’t find a single chair to sit, we’re full from morning till midnight,” said Salameh. On Sunday morning, just one table was taken, by journalists taking a break from the rain.

Under a banner that read “Bethlehem’s Christmas bells ring for a cease-fire in Gaza,” a few teenagers offered small inflatable Santas, but no one was buying.

Instead of their traditional march through the streets of Bethlehem, young scouts stood silently with flags. A group of local students unfurled a massive Palestinian flag as they stood in silence.

An organist with the Church of the Nativity choir, Shukry Mubarak, said the group changed much of the traditional Christmas musical repertoire from joyful holiday songs to more solemn hymns in minor keys.

“Our message every year on Christmas is one of peace and love, but this year it’s a message of sadness, grief and anger in front of the international community with what is happening and going on in the Gaza Strip,” Bethlehem’s mayor, Hana Haniyeh, said in an address to the crowd.

Dr. Joseph Mugasa, a pediatrician, was one of the few international visitors. He said his tour group of 15 people from Tanzania was “determined” to come to the region despite the situation.

“I’ve been here several times, and it’s quite a unique Christmas, as usually there’s a lot of people and a lot of celebrations,” he said. “But you can’t celebrate while people are suffering, so we are sad for them and praying for peace.”

More than 20,000 Palestinians have been killed and more than 50,000 wounded during Israel’s air and ground offensive against Gaza’s Hamas rulers, according to health officials there, while some 85% of the territory’s 2.3 million residents have been displaced.

The war was triggered by Hamas’ deadly assault Oct. 7 on southern Israel in which militants killed about 1,200 people, most of them civilians, and took more than 240 hostages.

The Gaza war has been accompanied by a surge in West Bank violence, with some 300 Palestinians killed by Israeli fire.

The fighting has affected life across the Israeli-occupied territory. Since Oct. 7, access to Bethlehem and other Palestinian towns in the West Bank has been difficult, with long lines of motorists waiting to pass military checkpoints. The restrictions have also prevented tens of thousands of Palestinians from exiting the territory to work in Israel.

Amir Michael Giacaman opened his store, “Il Bambino,” which sells olive wood carvings and other souvenirs, for the first time since Oct. 7. There have been no tourists, and few local residents have money to spare because those who worked in Israel have been stuck at home.

“When people have extra money, they go buy food,” said his wife, Safa Giacaman. “This year, we’re telling the Christmas story. We’re celebrating Jesus, not the tree, not Santa Claus, she said, as their daughter Mikaella ran around the deserted store.

The fighting in Gaza was on the minds of the small Christian community in Syria, which is coping with a civil war now in its 13th year. Christians said they were trying to find joy, despite the ongoing strife in their homeland and in Gaza.

“Where is the love? What have we done with love?” said the Rev. Elias Zahlawi, a priest in Yabroud, a city about 80 kilometers (50 miles) north of Damascus. “We’ve thrown God outside the realm of humanity and unfortunately, the church has remained silent in the face of this painful reality.”

Some tried to find inspiration in the spirit of Christmas.

Latin Patriarch Pierbattista Pizzaballa, arriving from Jerusalem for the traditional procession to the Church of the Nativity, told the sparse crowd that Christmas was a “reason to hope” despite the war and violence.

The pared-down Christmas was in keeping with the original message of the holiday and illustrated the many ways the community is coming together, said Stephanie Saldaña, who is originally from San Antonio, Texas, and has lived in Jerusalem and Bethlehem for the past 15 years with her husband, a parish priest at the St Joseph Syriac Catholic Church.

“We feel Christmas as more real than ever, because we’re waiting for the prince of peace to come. We are waiting for a miracle to stop this war,” Saldaña said.

United States News

Associated Press

New Jersey man acquitted in retrial in 2014 beating death of college student from Tennessee

NEW BRUNSWICK, N.J. (AP) — A New Jersey man has been acquitted in a retrial in the beating death of a college student from Tennessee a decade ago. Jurors in Middlesex County deliberated for five hours before acquitting Timothy Puskas of all charges Wednesday in the 2014 death of 22-year-old former Rutgers student William McCaw […]

43 minutes ago

Liam Lazo boards a diesel school bus near his home, Tuesday, Feb. 6, 2024, in Virginia Beach, Va. D...

Associated Press

Tired of diesel fumes, these moms are pushing for electric school buses

Areli Sanchez’s daughter, Aida, used to be one of 20 million American kids who ride a diesel bus to school each day. Aida has asthma. When she was little, she complained about the smell and cloud of fumes on her twice-daily trip. “When she would come home from school or be on the bus, she […]

2 hours ago

Associated Press

Warren Buffett tells investors to ignore Wall Street pundits while paying tribute to Charlie Munger

OMAHA, Neb. (AP) — Warren Buffett credited his longtime partner — the late Charlie Munger — with being the architect of the Berkshire Hathaway conglomerate he’s received the credit for leading and warned shareholders in his annual letter not to listen to Wall Street pundits or financial advisors who urge them to trade often. Buffett […]

3 hours ago

FILE -Stephen Parlato of Boulder, Colo., holds a sign that reads "Hands Off Roe!!!" as abortion rig...

Associated Press

Alabama IVF ruling puts spotlight on state plans for tax breaks and child support for fetuses

TOPEKA, Kan. (AP) — The recent Alabama Supreme Court ruling that frozen embryos are legally protected children is highlighting how support for the idea that a fetus should have the same rights as a person underpins far less dramatic laws and proposals from abortion foes across the U.S. Lawmakers in at least six states have […]

11 hours ago

This image provided by Tyler Watts shows Florida Man Games competitors, from left, Joshua Barr, Mic...

Associated Press

At the Florida Man Games, tank-topped teams compete at evading police, wrestling over beer

ST. AUGUSTINE, Fla. (AP) — They rose up by the dozens from across Florida, caricatured competitors in tank tops and cutoff shorts, for a showdown that treats evading police and wrestling over beer like Olympic sports. Promoted as “the most insane athletic showdown on Earth,” the Florida Man Games poke fun at the state’s reputation […]

11 hours ago

Andie Nelson, right, embraces Brian Jaskot, both of Virginia, after their race during the 25 meter ...

Associated Press

‘Totally cold’ is not too cold for winter swimmers competing in a frozen Vermont lake

NEWPORT, Vt. (AP) — Plunging into a frozen lake and swimming laps may not be everyone’s good time but for winter swimmers who return year after year to a northern Vermont lake near the Canadian border, there’s nothing better. The 10th annual Memphremagog Winter Swimming Festival kicked off Friday with the 200-meter (218-yard) freestyle race […]

12 hours ago

Sponsored Articles

...

DISC Desert Institute for Spine Care

Sciatica pain is treatable but surgery may be required

Sciatica pain is one of the most common ailments a person can face, and if not taken seriously, it could become one of the most harmful.

...

Collins Comfort Masters

Avoid a potential emergency and get your home’s heating and furnace safety checked

With the weather getting colder throughout the Valley, the best time to make sure your heating is all up to date is now. 

(KTAR News Graphic)...

Boys & Girls Clubs

KTAR launches online holiday auction benefitting Boys & Girls Clubs of the Valley

KTAR is teaming up with The Boys & Girls Clubs of the Valley for a holiday auction benefitting thousands of Valley kids.

On Christmas Eve, Bethlehem resembles a ghost town. Celebrations are halted due to Israel-Hamas war.