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Bethlehem resembles a ghost city. Celebrations are halted as a consequence of Israel-Hamas conflict.

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BETHLEHEM, West Financial institution — The usually bustling biblical birthplace of Jesus resembled a ghost city on Sunday, as Christmas Eve celebrations in Bethlehem have been referred to as off because of the Israel-Hamas conflict.

The festive lights and Christmas tree that usually embellish Manger Sq. have been lacking, as have been the throngs of international vacationers and jubilant youth marching bands that collect within the West Financial institution city annually to mark the vacation. Dozens of Palestinian safety forces patrolled the empty sq..

“This yr, with out the Christmas tree and with out lights, there’s simply darkness,” stated Brother John Vinh, a Franciscan monk from Vietnam who has lived in Jerusalem for six years.

He stated he at all times involves Bethlehem to mark Christmas, however this yr was particularly sobering, as he gazed at a nativity scene in Manger Sq. with a child Jesus wrapped in a white shroud, harking back to the hundreds of youngsters killed within the combating in Gaza. Barbed wire surrounded the scene, the gray rubble reflecting not one of the joyous lights and bursts of colour that usually fill the sq. in the course of the Christmas season.

The cancellation of Christmas festivities is a extreme blow to the city’s financial system. Tourism accounts for an estimated 70% of Bethlehem’s revenue — virtually all of that in the course of the Christmas season.

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With many main airlines canceling flights to Israel, few foreigners are visiting. Native officers say over 70 motels in Bethlehem have been compelled to shut, leaving hundreds of individuals unemployed.

Present retailers have been gradual to open on Christmas Eve, though a couple of did as soon as the rain had stopped pouring down. There have been few guests, nevertheless.

“We will’t justify placing out a tree and celebrating as regular, when some individuals (in Gaza) don’t even have homes to go to,” stated Ala’a Salameh, one of many homeowners of Afteem Restaurant, a family-owned falafel restaurant simply steps from the sq..

Salameh stated Christmas Eve is normally the busiest day of the yr. “Usually, you possibly can’t discover a single chair to sit down, we’re full from morning until midnight,” stated Salameh. This yr, only one desk was taken, by journalists taking a break from the rain.

Beneath a banner that learn “Bethlehem’s Christmas bells ring for a cease-fire in Gaza,” a couple of youngsters supplied small inflatable Santas, however nobody was shopping for. As a substitute of their conventional musical march by the streets of Bethlehem, younger scouts stood silently with flags. A bunch of native college students unfurled an enormous Palestinian flag as they stood in silence.

“Our message yearly on Christmas is one among peace and love, however this yr it is a message of disappointment, grief and anger in entrance of the worldwide group with what is going on and happening within the Gaza Strip,” Bethlehem’s mayor, Hana Haniyeh, stated in an handle to the gang.

Dr. Joseph Mugasa, a pediatrician, was one of many few worldwide guests. He stated his tour group of 15 individuals from Tanzania was “decided” to return to the area regardless of the scenario.

“I’ve been right here a number of instances, and it’s fairly a novel Christmas, as normally there’s lots of people and a variety of celebrations,” he stated. “However you possibly can’t have a good time whereas individuals are struggling, so we’re unhappy for them and praying for peace.”

Greater than 20,000 Palestinians have been killed and greater than 50,000 wounded throughout Israel’s air and floor offensive in opposition to Gaza’s Hamas rulers, in response to well being officers there, whereas some 85% of the territory’s 2.3 million residents have been displaced. The conflict was triggered by Hamas’ lethal assault Oct. 7 on southern Israel through which militants killed about 1,200 individuals, most of them civilians, and took greater than 240 hostages.

The Gaza conflict has been accompanied by a surge in violence, with some 300 Palestinians killed by Israeli fireplace.

The combating has affected life throughout the West Financial institution. Since Oct. 7, entry to Bethlehem and different Palestinian cities within the Israeli-occupied territory has been troublesome, with lengthy strains of motorists ready to move navy checkpoints. The restrictions have additionally prevented tens of hundreds of Palestinians from exiting the territory to work in Israel.

Amir Michael Giacaman opened his retailer, “Il Bambino,” which sells olive wooden carvings and different souvenirs, for the primary time since Oct. 7. There have been no vacationers, and few native residents have cash to spare as a result of those that labored in Israel have been caught at house.

“When individuals have more money, they go purchase food,” stated his spouse, Safa Giacaman. “This yr, we’re telling the Christmas story. We’re celebrating Jesus, not the tree, not Santa Claus, she stated, as their daughter Makaella ran across the abandoned retailer.

The combating in Gaza was on the minds of the small Christian group in Syria, which is dealing with a civil conflict now in its thirteenth yr. Christians stated they have been looking for pleasure, regardless of the continued strife of their homeland and in Gaza.

“The place is the love? What have we achieved with love?” stated the Rev. Elias Zahlawi, a priest in Yabroud, a metropolis about 80 kilometers (50 miles) north of Damascus. “We’ve thrown God exterior the realm of humanity and sadly, the church has remained silent within the face of this painful actuality.”

Some tried to search out inspiration within the spirit of Christmas.

Latin Patriarch Pierbattista Pizzaballa, arriving from Jerusalem for the standard procession to the Church of the Nativity, informed the sparse crowd that Christmas was a “motive to hope” regardless of the conflict and violence.

The pared-down Christmas was in step with the unique message of the vacation and illustrated the various methods the group is coming collectively, stated Stephanie Saldana, who’s initially from San Antonio, Texas, and has lived in Jerusalem and Bethlehem for the previous 15 years along with her husband, a parish priest on the St Joseph Syriac Catholic Church.

“We really feel Christmas as extra actual than ever, as a result of we’re ready for the prince of peace to return. We’re ready for a miracle to cease this conflict,” Saldana stated.

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