Press "Enter" to skip to content

Christmas tourism back in Palestine’s Bethlehem after Covid curbs

Palestine’s town of Bethlehem has marked a merry Christmas, with thousands of visitors descending upon the traditional birthplace of Jesus as it rebounds from the coronavirus pandemic.

“We are celebrating Christmas this year in a very much different way than last year,” Palestine’s Tourism Minister Rula Maayah said on Saturday.

“We’re celebrating Christmas with pilgrims coming from all over the world.”

Throughout the day, hundreds of people strolled through Manger Square for Christmas Eve celebrations.

Marching bands pounding on drums and playing bagpipes paraded through the area, and foreign tourists meandered about and snapped selfies with the town’s large Christmas tree behind them.

Cool grey weather, along with an occasional rain shower, did little to dampen spirits, though many people headed indoors to shops and restaurants to warm up. 

READ MORE: Türkiye’s President Erdogan extends Christmas greetings

‘Message of peace’

Tourism is the economic lifeblood of this town in the Israeli-occupied West Bank, and for the past two years, the pandemic kept international visitors away.

This year, visitors are back, hotels are full and shopkeepers have reported a brisk business in the runup to the holiday. Although the numbers have not reached pre-pandemic levels, the return of tourists has palpably raised spirits in Bethlehem.

Daisy Lucas, a 38-year-old Filipina who works in Israel, said it was a dream come true to mark the holiday in such an important place.

“As a Christian walking in the places in the Bible, it’s so overwhelming,” she said.

“This is the birthplace of Jesus Christ. As a Christian, that’s one achievement that’s on my bucket list.”

Latin Patriarch Pierbattista Pizzaballa, the top Roman Catholic clergyman in the Holy Land, arrived from Jerusalem through a checkpoint in occupied West Bank separation barrier.

“We are living in very difficult challenges,” he said, noting the war in Ukraine and a recent wave of Israeli-Palestinian violence. 

“But the message of Christmas is a message of peace.”

Tourists converged on the streets, shops and stone buildings of this Palestinian town, where Christians and Muslims live side by side.

City welcomes 700,000 tourists

It was “wonderful to be here”, said Paul Wittenberger, a 40-year-old American from Michigan who was visiting with his father and siblings.

“We’ve been here for three days and the weather’s nice, we’re lucky to be here out of the storm” sweeping the United States this weekend, he said.

To John Hughes, just “hanging out” in Bethlehem was meaningful.

“It’s a pretty cool city,” said the 22-year-old Canadian from Vancouver.

For him, the birthplace of Christ was a “significant place — especially on Christmas”.

Michael al-Siriani, who owns a pottery and ceramics workshop, was delighted to see tourists flocking back to the town after two difficult years, which had seen local hotels standing empty.

“Things are much better now after the coronavirus pandemic,” he said. “Besides, tourists have started to sleep in the city again.”

Palestine’s Tourism Minister Maayah confirmed Siriani’s feelings.

“Since the beginning of this year, but more specifically since March, we have begun receiving pilgrims and tourists from all over the world,” Maayah said.

“Until now, we have received about 700,000 tourists from around the world,” she said.

Pilgrims were deep in prayer in the Church of the Nativity while others took selfies wearing red and white Santa Claus caps, hours before the traditional midnight mass and its wishes for peace.

However, the present-day reality was visible at Manger Square as banners showing photos of Palestinian prisoner Nasser Abu Hamid were prominently displayed.

The veteran prisoner died of cancer last week in an Israeli prison clinic after spending some 20 years behind bars.

READ MORE: Israelis have given up on the two-state solution: Yuval Noah Harari

Decades of Israeli occupation

Israel occupied the West Bank, including East Jerusalem, and Gaza during the 1967 Middle East War. It annexed the entire East Jerusalem city in 1980, claiming it as Israel’s “eternal” capital — a move never recognised by the international community.

It pulled back from Gaza in 2005 and has since then maintained a harsh blockade from land, sea and air on the besieged Palestinian enclave.

Palestine sees those territories as part of its country, with East Jerusalem its heartland and ultimate capital.

International law views the West Bank and East Jerusalem as “occupied territory” and considers all Jewish settlement-building activity on the land to be illegal.

Palestinians accuse Israel of waging an aggressive campaign to “Judaize” the historic city by effacing its Arab and Islamic identity and driving out its Palestinian inhabitants.

Almost 500,000 illegal Israeli settlers live in over 130 settlements dotting the occupied West Bank alongside nearly three million Palestinians living under Israeli military occupation.

READ MORE: Xi Jinping says China supports Palestine with 1967 borders

More from Art-CultureMore posts in Art-Culture »

Be First to Comment

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *