By Judith Sudilovsky
Catholic News Service
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 Land.”
“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 any problems.”
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 his merchandise.