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Israel, Palestinian Authority. Bethlehem suffers on Christmas Day

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In the city of Bethlehem on the West Bank, in solidarity with the children dying in the Gaza Strip, a Christmas nativity scene was created depicting Jesus being born in a manger full of rubble. – We cannot celebrate when so many people have died in Gaza – Abood Subouh, a shop owner at a local market, tells the BBC.

Churches across Palestine have announced the cancellation of all Christmas celebrations in solidarity with the Gaza Strip, limiting their activities to services and prayers. In one of the churches, a nativity scene was set up, in which Jesus is born among the rubble in Gaza.

The streets and courtyards of Bethlehem are mostly empty, and the roads leading into the city have been blocked by Israeli forces.

Munther Isaac, pastor of the Evangelical Lutheran Church of the Nativity in Bethlehem, told the Washington Post that it is “impossible to rejoice” this year when there is a “genocidal war against our people in the Gaza Strip.”

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The church decided that this year’s nativity scene would reflect the “painful reality” of children living in Palestine today, and so placed the baby Jesus in a dilapidated, rubble-filled manger as “a message of solidarity with those suffering in Gaza,” Isaac said.

Read also: White House: ceasefire talks in Gaza “very serious”

– If Christ were to be born today, he would be born under the rubble – he added.

Manger Square in front of the Church of the Nativity in BethlehemReuters

The Greek Orthodox parish priest of the Nativity of the Lord in Bethlehem, Issa Thaljieh, told Al-Jazeera that canceling Christmas celebrations in solidarity with the people of Gaza sends a clear “message to the world.”

– We see children, women and the elderly dying amidst the omnipresent destruction. It’s hard to remain silent about what’s happening, Thaljieh said.

“We’re just praying we get out of here alive.”

– There is no happiness, joy, children or Santa Claus in the city. There are no celebrations this year, Madeleine, a resident of Bethlehem in the West Bank, tells the BBC. There is no famous Christmas tree that usually stands in the middle of the square. There are no carols or Christmas stands.

In the empty Church of the Nativity, Father Eissa Thaldjiya tells a British website that his city seems to be a shadow of itself. – I have been a priest in this church for 12 years. I was born in Bethlehem and I have never seen anything like this – not even during the pandemic covid-19 – he said. – We have brothers and sisters in Gaza – that’s what makes it difficult to celebrate… But it’s good to be united in prayer – he added.

Jawdat Mikhael lives in Bethlehem, but his family is trapped in the northern Gaza Strip. His parents, brother and dozens of other relatives took refuge in the Church of the Holy Family near Shejaiya in eastern Gaza City – an area devastated by Israeli bombing. While Jawdat is talking to a BBC journalist, a call comes from his father, Han’na Mikhael. The connection is unstable, but he still tries to see his dad.

Han’na tells her son that the family is fine. He says that for the first time in over two weeks he managed to leave the church to find something to eat. He says there is rubble left around the church and all the shops have been burned down. – It’s total destruction – he says.

He says that communication has been cut off and that there is no water. Food deliveries are also scarce – “enough to keep you alive, but not to fill your stomach,” he says. Han’na cries as she talks about how different Christmas was last year. – On days like this we decorated the church. Christmas carols were sung. People came to help. And now we just pray to get out of here alive, he says.

A week ago, Jawdat’s grandmother, Naheda Khalil Anton – who was also hiding in a Gaza church – was shot twice in the stomach as she went to the bathroom. Her aunt, Samar Kamal Anton, rushed to help and was shot in the head. His family was hiding in the Church of the Holy Family from the beginning of the war. Now they buried their loved ones there.

The family blames Israeli snipers for their deaths. The IDF (Israel Defense Forces) say they will continue to investigate the matter. Through tears, Han’na says that two members of his family died before his eyes: – It was a shock… It was unbearable – he says.

“We cannot celebrate when so many people have died in Gaza.”

Church bells rang in Bethlehem on Sunday morning as some locals gathered around Jesus as he was born amid the rubble. Arabic songs played from the loudspeakers, one of which calls for salam – peace – for children – writes the BBC. Dozens of people stand in the middle, holding a large Palestinian flag and waving it up and down.

The Latin Patriarch of Jerusalem, Pierbattista Pizzaballa, came to Bethlehem to deliver a traditional sermon. He wore a traditional black and white checkered Palestinian scarf. Before entering the Church of the Nativity, he said it was a “very sad Christmas.” – We are fighting a war, a terrible war. Our thoughts go primarily to Gaza, to our citizens in Gaza… Two million are suffering, he said. He added that “a ceasefire is not enough.” “We must stop these hostilities and move on, because violence only breeds violence,” he said.

Pierbattista PizzaballaPAP/EPA/Wisam Hashlamoun

A few steps from Manger Square, there are souvenir shops on both sides of Star Street, but there is no typical hustle and bustle of buying, selling and haggling. Famous scarves, pillowcases and artifacts sewn with Palestinian stitch hang intact in front of shops. This is usually the peak season for the market. Not in this year.

“We cannot celebrate when so many people have died in Gaza,” said Abood Subouh, a shop owner at a local market near Manger Square. He says that although it is sad to see his city and his company this way, celebrating Christmas this year seems inappropriate: – We cannot be happy because we are not on the other side of the world. We are still in Palestine, he said.

Main photo source: EPA/WISAM HASHLAMOUN

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