Bethlehem is gearing up for a subdued Christmas as Gaza war rages on

Bethlehem is gearing up for a subdued Christmas, without the festive lights and customary Christmas tree towering over Manger Square, after officials in Jesus’ traditional birthplace decided to forgo celebrations due to the Israel-Hamas war.

The cancelation of Christmas festivities, which typically draw thousands of visitors, is a severe blow to the town’s tourism-dependent economy.

But joyous revelry is untenable at a time of immense suffering of Palestinians in Gaza, said Mayor Hana Hananiyeh.

“As we’re witnessing the aggression against our people in Gaza Strip and the military closure in West Bank, we cannot celebrate Christmas this year,” Hananiyeh told The Associated Press on Saturday.

Since October 7, access to Bethlehem and other Palestinian towns in the Israeli-occupied West Bank has been difficult, with long lines of motorists waiting to pass military checkpoints.

The restrictions have also prevented many Palestinians from exiting the territory to work in Israel.

City leaders fret about the impact the closures have on the small Palestinian economy in the West Bank, already struggling with a dramatic fall in tourism since the start of the war.

The Palestinian tourism sector has incurred losses of $2.5 million a day, amounting to $200 million by the end of the year, Palestinian Tourism Minister Rula Maayah said Saturday.

With most major airlines canceling flights to Israel, over 70 hotels in Bethlehem have been forced to close, leaving some 6,000 employees in the tourism sector unemployed, according to Sami Thaljieh, manager of the Sancta Maria Hotel.

The enthusiasm of Bethlehem’s Christmas festivities has long been a barometer of Israeli-Palestinian relations.

Celebrations were grim in 2000 at the start of the second intifada, or uprising, when Israeli forces locked down parts of the West Bank in response to Palestinians carrying out scores of suicide bombings and other attacks that killed Israeli civilians.

Times were also tense during an earlier Palestinian uprising, which lasted from 1987-1993, when annual festivities in Manger Square were overseen by Israeli army snipers on the rooftops.

The sober mood this year isn’t confined to Bethlehem.

Israel declared war after Hamas militants stormed across the border on October 7, killing some 1,200 people and taking some 240 hostages.

Israel has vowed to keep up the fight until Hamas is destroyed and removed from power in Gaza and all the hostages are freed.

More than 20,000 Palestinians have been killed in Israel’s war to destroy Hamas and more than 53,000 have been wounded, according to health officials in Gaza.

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