Thousands flocked to Bethlehem to celebrate Christmas, including the hundreds of tourists pictured here in Manger Square, Dec. 24, 2013. (AFP/File)
BETHLEHEM (Ma’an) -- The towering Christmas tree on Bethlehem’s Manger Square has officially been lit, but this year’s festivities look set to be dampened by ongoing unrest across the Holy Land.
“We cannot forget what is going on, that there are people suffering,” said Father Jamal Khader, the rector of the Latin Patriarchate, which traditionally leads Bethlehem’s Christmas celebrations. “People are losing hope in a future of peace.”
Normally a huge tourist draw, this year’s Christmas celebrations are expected to see only a fraction of the thousands of visitors that have flocked to Bethlehem in recent years.
They will also be a time of difficult reflection for Palestinian Christians, whose numbers have dwindled in recent years, with many choosing to leave their homeland to escape Israel’s nearly 50-year military occupation.
Fr. Khader said the Latin Patriarch’s annual procession from Jerusalem to Bethlehem the day before Christmas would go ahead this year, as it had done even through the worst years of the Second Intifada.
But celebrations outside the Nativity Church on Manger Square -- traditionally the birthplace of Jesus Christ -- are expected to be far more restrained than they have in recent years, with the mayor’s office set to announce “special arrangements” this week.
“We are celebrating today with a very critical situation in Palestine,” said Mayor Vera Baboun, although she added that celebrating Christmas was Bethlehem’s duty -- “as the city of peace.”
‘Nothing without tourism’
The Latin Patriarch of Jerusalem Fuad Twal sprinkles holy water outside the Church of the Nativity, Dec. 24, 2013. (AFP/File)
Bethlehem’s economy is heavily reliant on the tourist trade, and every year, the district draws in nearly half the West Bank’s tourists, the vast majority of them Christian pilgrims.
But even before the unrest spread at the beginning of October, tourism had seen a sharp fall across the occupied Palestinian territories, mostly due to last year’s Gaza war, but also turmoil in the region at large.
Bethlehem’s Chamber of Commerce said that tourism across the West Bank in the first half of this year was down nearly 32 percent compared with the first half of 2014.
Since October, it has only worsened, with the Chamber of Commerce estimating that economic activity in all sectors -- including tourism -- has collapsed a further 30 to 35 percent across the occupied Palestinian territory.
“The coming Christmas is not expected to boost the economy of Bethlehem as many tourists have cancelled their hotel reservations,” it said, adding that the occupancy rate in Bethlehem’s hotels could be as low as 40 percent over Christmas -- normally the high season.
“Many people want to come, but they are afraid because they know the Holy Land is under occupation,” said Palestinian Minister of Tourism Rula Maaya.
Majdi Ata Amro, who owns the Bedouin Store in Bethlehem's north, said that business was very poor, down as much as 80 percent for some locals in the tourist trade. “You don’t feel there’s Christmas,” he said.
Clashes have erupted frequently on the street outside his tourist shop, which is close to Israel’s separation wall. “Inshallah, there will be change,” he said. “Bethlehem without tourism is nothing.”
Israeli soldiers clash with Palestinians along the route used by the Latin Patriarch to cross from Jerusalem into Bethlehem every year. (AFP/Thomas Coex, File)
A subdued Christmas will only compound an already difficult year for Palestinian Christians, who have suffered the full brunt of Israel’s policies, most notably land seizures and, for those in Jerusalem, the revocation of residency rights.
Jewish extremists have threatened to attack Palestinian churches, and in June, they burnt to the ground the wing of a revered church in Galilee where Jesus is said to have performed the miracle of the loaves and the fishes.
“Nearly everyone has emigrated,” said Raffoul Rofa, the executive director of the Society of St. Yves, the Latin Patriarchate’s legal arm. Over the last century, Christians had gone from comprising 20 percent of the Palestinian population to just over 1 percent, he said.
While Palestine’s Christians have faced the same crippling effects of Israel’s occupation as Muslims, Rofa said their emigration has been accelerated in part due to their more vulnerable status as a minority, as well as having large numbers of relatives abroad.
In a widely reported case earlier this year, Israel decided to go ahead with controversial plans to build the separation wall directly through land belonging to the Christian-majority village of Beit Jala to the west of Bethlehem.
If completed, the separation wall would cut off Christian landowners from olive groves their families have cultivated for centuries, probably to be incorporated into the nearby Jewish-only settlements of Gilo and Har Gilo.
“At least 58 families here in Beit Jala won’t have land to pass onto the next generation,” said Rofa, noting that the plans would probably push many of these families to pack up and leave.
An Israeli excavator uproots olive trees to make way for Israel's separation wall in the West Bank village of Beit Jala on August 17, 2015. (AFP/Musa al-Shaer, File)
There are now some 60,000 Christians living in the occupied Palestinian territory, the PLO estimates; while the population of Muslims has grown rapidly in recent decades, that of Christians has remained almost unchanged.
“I don’t really care how many Christians are living here,” Fr. Khader said. “What matters is what they are doing, what kind of presence they have.” He said an “active community,” standing together with the rest of Palestinian society, was what mattered most.
He hoped the Christmas celebrations this year would bring a message “of hope for all inhabitants of the Holy Land” and allow the church to “share joy with those who are suffering.”
The latest round of violence has so far left more than 110 Palestinians and nearly 20 Israelis dead, and there is no end in sight to the bloodshed.
The Latin Patriarch’s procession will pass through Israel’s separation wall at a site that has been rocked by fierce clashes almost every day since the beginning of October -- making its way down a road where Israeli forces have shot and wounded scores of Palestinian protesters.
Minister of Tourism Rula Maaya said she too hoped the year’s festivities would offer some relief at a time that has otherwise seemed bleak to many. “This is the land of peace,” she said, “Bethlehem is the birthplace of the king of peace, and all we want is peace.”
A view of Manger Square and the Church of the Nativity as people gather for Christmas eve celebrations in Bethlehem, Dec. 24, 2013. (AFP/File)