BETHLEHEM, West Bank (AP) — The normally bustling biblical birthplace of Jesus looked like a ghost town Sunday as Christmas Eve celebrations in Bethlehem were canceled because of the Israel-Hamas war.
The festive lights and Christmas trees that normally decorate Manger Square were missing, as were the crowds of foreign tourists who gather each year to celebrate the holiday. Dozens of Palestinian security forces patrolled the empty square.
Gift shops opened slowly on Christmas Eve, although some opened after the rain stopped. However, visitors were few.
“This year, without the Christmas tree and without the lights, there is just darkness,” said Brother John Vinh, a Franciscan monk from Vietnam who has lived in Jerusalem for six years.
He said he always comes to Bethlehem to celebrate Christmas, but this year was especially solemn, as he witnessed a nativity scene in Manger Square, reminiscent of a baby Jesus wrapped in a white shroud . hundreds of children Killed in fighting in Gaza. With barbed wire surrounding the scene, the gray debris did not reflect the joyous lights and explosions of color that normally fill the square during the Christmas season.
"When some people (in Gaza) don't even have a house to live in, we can't justify planting a tree and celebrating normally," said Ala'a Salameh, one of the owners of the Aftim restaurant. That said, a family-owned falafel restaurant is just steps from the intersection.
Christmas Eve is usually the busiest day of the year, Salameh said. “Normally, you don't find a single chair to sit, we are full from morning till midnight,” Salameh said. This year, only one table was occupied by journalists taking a break from the rain.
Salameh said his restaurant was operating at about 15% of normal business and was not able to cover operating costs. He estimated that even after the war ended, it would take another year for tourism in Bethlehem to return to normal.
cancellation of christmas celebration A serious blow to the city's economy. An estimated 70% of Bethlehem's income comes from tourism – almost all of it during the Christmas season.
Due to many major airlines canceling flights to Israel, very few foreigners are arriving. Local officials say more than 70 hotels in Bethlehem have been forced to close, leaving thousands of people unemployed.
More than 20,000 Palestinians have been killed and more than 50,000 wounded during Israel's air and ground offensive against Gaza's Hamas rulers, according to health officials there, while about 85% of the territory's 2.3 million residents have been displaced. Are. the war had begun deadly attack by hamas On October 7, militants in southern Israel killed approximately 1,200 people, most of them civilians, and took more than 240 hostage.
The fighting in Gaza has also affected life in the West Bank. Since October 7, access to Bethlehem and other Palestinian cities in the Israeli-occupied territory has been difficult, with long queues of motorists waiting to pass through military checkpoints. The sanctions have also prevented thousands of Palestinians from leaving the area to work in Israel.
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