On Christmas Eve, when Bethlehem would normally be decked out in festive finery, the sadness of the Gaza conflict dampened the holiday spirit.
There was little celebration on Sunday, with few worshippers or visitors on the streets of the Palestinian village in the occupied West Bank that is said to be the birthplace of Jesus Christ, according to Christian tradition.
Throughout observance of the people of Gaza, who are enduring the worst conflict to ever engulf the beleaguered Palestinian region, most celebrations throughout the Holy Land have been cancelled.
“A lot of people are dying for this land,” says Nicole Najjar, an 18-year-old student in the city’s deserted Manger Square.
“It’s really hard to celebrate while our people are dying.”
A work of art depicting the agony of war has been built on the ground opposite the Church of the Nativity, replacing the life-size nativity scene and giant Christmas tree that were previously there.
On the building next door, a large banner reads: “Stop the genocide, stop the displacement, lift the blockade.”
According to an AFP assessment based on Israeli numbers, Hamas fighters assaulted Israel on October 7 and murdered roughly 1,140 people, primarily civilians, and kidnapped 250 hostages.
In response, Israel has sworn to destroy Hamas, and its military operation, which has included heavy aerial bombardment, has killed 20,424 people, the majority of them are women and children, according to Gaza’s health ministry.
An estimated 1,000 Christians have sought safety in churches in Hamas-ruled Palestinian territories.
According to the Latin patriarch of Jerusalem, Pierbattista Pizzaballa, an Israeli sniper killed a mother and daughter inside the Church of the Holy Family in Gaza City last week.
‘Life, not death’
Pizzaballa addressed the people of Gaza during midnight mass.
“We won’t abandon you,” he said at the Church of Saint Catherine.
“Their suffering ceaselessly cries out to the whole world,” he said.
“Thousands of people have been deprived of their basic needs; they are hungry, and they are even more exposed to incomprehensible violence.”
In normal years, a festive parade wakes the city up with bagpipes and tambourines.
But this year, people took to the streets silently.
“We want life, not death,” proclaimed one of the banners carried by children through the streets.
In the morning, a huge Palestinian flag was unfurled in Manger Square, held at either end by Christians and Muslims.
“This year is different from all the others, it’s a year of sadness, grief, destruction, deprivation and loss,” says Mervat Murra, 50, a fashion designer from Bethlehem.
Near Manger Square, the Giacaman family opened their shop selling nativity scenes and other religious objects for the first time in 11 weeks.
“During Covid, we had two bad years, but that’s nothing compared to this,” says Amir Giacaman, 29.
The hostilities in Gaza have spread to the West Bank, a Palestinian territory occupied by Israel since 1967, where more than 300 Palestinians have been killed since 7 October by Israeli soldiers or settlers.
“We don’t feel like celebrating while Gaza is suffering genocide and even here in the West Bank, we mourn young people killed by the Israelis and others detained every day,” Mitri Raheb, pastor of a Lutheran church in Bethlehem, tells AFP.
“All we want for Christmas is a lasting ceasefire to put an end to this atrocity,” he says.
“Bethlehem gave Jesus to the world. It’s high time the world gave peace to Bethlehem and Gaza.”