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‘No Christmas Tree, No Joy’ in Bethlehem, the Birthplace of Jesus Christ Amid Gaza violence

Scouts hold a sign in solidarity with Palestinians in Gaza, on the day of a visit by the Latin Patriarch of Jerusalem, Pierbattista Pizzaballa, to the Old City of Bethlehem [Mussa Issa Qawasma/Reuters]

Bethlehem, a typically bustling town during Christmas, is now gripped by a sombre atmosphere as the recent surge in violence keeps tourists and pilgrims away. The conflict between Hamas and Israel, followed by heightened tensions in the West Bank, has left hotels, restaurants, and souvenir shops deserted.

Joey Canavati, owner of the Alexander Hotel, expressed the severity of the situation: “This is the worst Christmas ever. Bethlehem is shut down for Christmas. No Christmas tree, no joy, no Christmas spirit.”

Before the conflict erupted on October 7, Canavati’s hotel was fully booked for Christmas, with plans to accommodate overflow elsewhere in town. However, cancellations flooded in, even extending to bookings for the following year.

Canavati took Reuters TV through his hotel, revealing empty rooms and a silent dining area. “We had at least 120 people having dinner here every night, and it was packed. The noise, the people. Empty. No Christmas breakfast, no Christmas dinner, no Christmas buffet,” he said.

Bethlehem heavily relies on global visitors who come to see the Church of the Nativity, believed by Christians to be the birthplace of Jesus. The recent conflict has not only impacted tourism but also heightened tensions in the West Bank, where attacks by Jewish settlers on Palestinians have surged.

Rony Tabash, a shop owner in Bethlehem said, “We are almost two months without any pilgrim, any tourist.” He keeps his store open as a way to hold onto hope for a return to normalcy.

Ala’a Salameh, owner of the falafel restaurant Afteem, highlighted the drastic drop in business: “We are operating at 10% or 15% of capacity, catering for local Palestinian families rather than the usual influx of foreign visitors.”

“We are praying for peace. For peace. You know, Bethlehem is the city where peace was born, so it should be the messenger for peace to be spread all over the world,” Salameh said.

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