Bethlehem rebounds from pandemic, lifting Christmas spirits

With a giant evergreen tree, colourful balloons in the streets and selfies in the Church of the Nativity, Christmas tourism has returned to the occupied West Bank city of Bethlehem after two years of COVID-related restrictions.

Revered in the Christian tradition as the birthplace of Christ, the town of Bethlehem welcomes thousands of pilgrims and tourists for Christmas every year, a windfall that dried up during the past two years due to the pandemic and travel restrictions.

Now with restrictions lifted in the occupied Palestinian territories and Israel, where the closest international airport with access to Bethlehem is located, the southern West Bank town has taken on a festive air.

Scouts marched with bagpipes as thousands of onlookers lining the streets held balloons and cotton candy.

The Latin Patriarch of Jerusalem, Pierbattista Pizzaballa, greeted worshippers upon his arrival to the town, in advance of leading the annual Christmas Eve procession at the Church of the Nativity.

People gather at the Church of Nativity in Bethlehem, in the Israeli-occupied West Bank [Mussa Issa Qawasma/Reuters]

“Christmas is the town’s celebration, and we put in a lot of time and effort to prepare for it,” Bethlehem mayor Hanna Hanania told the AFP news agency.

“We wanted to have international participation, and organised children’s songs and shows with singers from France, South Africa and Malta,” he added.

Al Jazeera’s Nida Ibrahim, reporting from Bethlehem, said Palestinians were looking forward to a Christmas season without any COVID-19 restrictions.

However, it was also a year that was “marred with losses”, Ibrahim added.

“There has been a lot of tension here in the occupied West Bank – more than 230 Palestinians were killed by Israeli forces,” she said, referring to those who were killed across the West Bank and in the besieged Gaza Strip.

“The fact that Palestinians feel that they don’t have hope of a better life – of ending the Israeli occupation … affects the celebrations,” Ibrahim said.

‘Very difficult challenges’

Meanwhile, tourists converged on the streets, shops and stone buildings of this Palestinian town, where Christians and Muslims live side by side.

It was “wonderful to be here”, said Paul Wittenberger, a 40-year-old American from Michigan who was visiting with his father and siblings.

“We’ve been here for three days and the weather’s nice, we’re lucky to be here out of the storm” sweeping the United States this weekend, he said.

Michael al-Siriani, who owns a pottery and ceramics workshop, was delighted to see tourists flocking back to the town after two difficult years, which had seen local hotels standing empty.

“Things are much better now after the coronavirus pandemic,” he said. “Besides, tourists have started to sleep in the city again.”

Although the numbers have not reached pre-pandemic levels, the return of tourists has palpably raised spirits in Bethlehem.

The Palestinian Authority, which governs the Israeli-occupied West Bank, confirmed Siriani’s feelings.

The Latin Patriarch of Jerusalem, Pierbattista Pizzaballa, attends Christmas celebrations, in Bethlehem, in the Israeli-occupied West Bank [Mohamad Torokman/Reuters]

“Since the beginning of this year, but more specifically since March, we have begun receiving pilgrims and tourists from all over the world,” Palestinian tourism minister Rula Maayah said.

“Until now, we have received about 700,000 tourists from around the world,” she said.

Latin Patriarch Pierbattista Pizzaballa, the top Roman Catholic clergyman in the Holy Land, arrived from Jerusalem and is expected to celebrate Midnight Mass.

“We are living in very difficult challenges,” he said. “But the message of Christmas is a message of peace.”

“It’s possible to change things,” he added. “We will be very clear in what we have to do and what we have to say in order to preserve the importance of unity and reconciliation among all.”

Pizzaballa walked through Manger Square, waving to well-wishers before heading to the Church of the Nativity, built on the spot where Christians believe Jesus was born.

Present-day reality was visible at Manger Square as banners showing photos of Palestinian political prisoner Nasser Abu Hmaid were prominently displayed. Hmaid died of cancer last week in Israeli custody after spending some 20 years behind bars, despite longstanding calls for his release and claims of Israeli medical negligence following his late diagnosis more than a year ago.

Meanwhile, pilgrims were deep in prayer in the Church of the Nativity while others took selfies wearing red and white Santa Claus caps, hours before the traditional midnight mass and its wishes for peace.

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