Bethlehem: Gaza conflict mars Christmas festivities

Bethlehem in the occupied West Bank, the supposed birthplace of Jesus, is usually busy during Christmastime. This year, most festivities have been canceled because of the Gaza conflict

During this year's Christmas season, the Church of the Nativity in Bethlehem in the occupied West Bank will remain empty. (photo: DW)
During this year's Christmas season, the Church of the Nativity in Bethlehem in the occupied West Bank will remain empty. (photo: DW)


The anticipation of Christmas has always been the best thing, Nuha Tarazi said, placing a bowl of Christmas cookies on the kitchen table. But this year is very different: There are no Christmas decorations in her home.

"We always looked forward to the holidays every year," Tarazi, a retired English teacher, told DW. She has not received a permit from the Israeli authorities to visit her relatives in her hometown in Gaza City for six years.

"Who wants to think about Christmas celebrations now with what is happening in Gaza?" Tarazi said.

At Christmas, her relatives from Gaza City were usually allowed to visit her in the occupied West Bank. Tarazi was born in Gaza, but has lived in Beit Sahour, a town neighboring Bethlehem, for many decades. Many people here have relatives and friends in the Gaza Strip, where there is still a small Christian community.

For festivals such as Christmas or Easter, Israeli authorities usually issued the coveted exit permits to Palestinian Christians in the sealed-off Gaza Strip, which has been ruled for the past 17 years by Hamas.

A different kind of Christmas

However, it was always uncertain whether such a permit would be granted, and often not all members of a family were allowed to leave. In some years, the number of exit permits was severely limited depending on the political situation. But at least there was hope of seeing each other over the festive period and spending time together.

Now, though, everything is different again. Israel's Erez border crossing has been closed since the Hamas attacks on October 7 in southern Israel and the subsequent conflict. This means the route to the occupied West Bank and to Jerusalem is also closed.

But Tarazi is also in mourning: Her sister was killed in an Israeli attack on a building on the grounds of the Greek Orthodox Porphyrius Church in Gaza City in October. According to a statement from the Greek Orthodox Patriarchate, 18 people died in the attack, many of whom had sought shelter on the premises.

"I am alone here and I don't know how to deal with it. My thoughts only revolve around what's happening there in Gaza," said Tarazi, struggling to keep her composure. She added that she wasn't even able to attend her sister's funeral.

The constant worry about other siblings and relatives keeps her busy day and night, as communication is difficult as well. "The only thing that helps is to go into my garden and see my flowers, and take care of it," she said.

No Christmas celebrations

Tarazi isn't the only one who doesn't feel like celebrating Christmas this year. In Bethlehem, the supposed birthplace of Jesus, there will be no Christmas festivities.

Manger Square in front of the Church of the Nativity, usually packed with thousands of local and foreign visitors during the Christmas season, is empty. The city hasn't put up the large Christmas tree or the Nativity scene, and Christmas decorations and lights are nowhere to be found.

"There is no atmosphere of the feast, there are no festivities because of what is happening in Palestine, in Gaza," said Basel, who sells grilled chicken on Star Street, a historic street leading to Manger Square.

"Normally there would be lots of people from all over the world, from different religions, but there is no Christmas atmosphere at all," said Yara Alama, who lives in Bethlehem. "You get the feeling that you can't feel any joy because of the war and what's happening to the people in Gaza."

The Church of the Nativity, built over the site where Jesus is believed to have been born, is also unusually empty and silent. There are no long queues of people waiting to visit the narrow grotto below, where a silver star marks the sacred spot.

First COVID-19, now a conflict

Father Issa Taljieh, who was born in Bethlehem, has been the church's parish priest for the Greek Orthodox community for the past 12 years. In all his time there, he said, he has never experienced such a sad Christmas season.

"People are grieving and sad about what is happening in Gaza," he said. "This is the first time that the Nativity Church, the place where Jesus was born, I see it empty like this. Even during COVID-19 there were still local people that came and celebrated Christmas with us."

During the pandemic, foreign visitors were not able to come to Bethlehem, and the tourism industry that the city depends on suffered as a result. Since October 7, access to the city, which is already cut off from Jerusalem by the Israeli separation barrier, has become even more difficult. The Israeli army has set up barriers on many access roads, which people have to cross on foot, and cars are only allowed to drive during certain hours.

In Gaza, as of December 21, more than 20,000 Palestinians had been killed, according to the Hamas-run Health Ministry.

According to the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA), at least 491 Palestinians have been killed in the West Bank, making 2023 the deadliest year for Palestinians in the West Bank since OCHA began recording casualties in 2005. In Israel, over 1,100 Israelis and foreign nationals were killed on 7 October. Over 120 hostages are still believed to be held captive in Gaza.

'We need Christmas now'

Taljieh, whose first name means "Jesus" in Arabic, is trying to help his congregation through these difficult times.

"We can't celebrate in Bethlehem while people are killed there in Gaza, while their homes are destroyed, they become homeless, without food, without a safe place and in the middle of winter. We must include them in our prayers and pray for peace and security," he said.

While festivities in the city are canceled, the Christmas liturgies at the Church of the Nativity will still go ahead. On December 24, the Latin Patriarch from Jerusalem will make his entrance to Bethlehem, but this year without the accompanying music of the Palestinian scout groups. The traditional midnight Mass will also take place. About two weeks later, the Orthodox communities will celebrate their Christmas festivities, according to their calendars.

With the ongoing suffering and the hopeless situation in the Gaza Strip, it's important to draw strength from faith, said Father Rami Askarieh, parish priest of the Latin parish of St. Catherine Church in Bethlehem.

"We need Christmas now. Yes, it will be a celebration without music, without the scouts, without festivities," he said. "But it is important that we keep the religious rituals, that there is a message of peace from this city to the world, a message of peace that emanates from Jesus' birthplace."

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Published: 24 Dec 2023, 8:52 AM