‘Without work and hope’: Bethlehem’s Christmas economy bleeds from Gaza war

The West Bank city loses Christmas tourism amid daily Israeli raids and the continuing assault on the Gaza Strip.

Bethlehem/Mosab Shawer
There are no tourists on Bethlehem's streets and churches have announced the cancellation of all Christmas festivities amid the continuing Israeli assault on Gaza [Mosab Shawer/Al Jazeera]

Bethlehem, occupied West Bank – Revered as the birthplace of Christ, the town of Bethlehem in the occupied West Bank is usually bustling with thousands of pilgrims and tourists in December.

A giant Christmas tree, parades, and religious ceremonies typically inaugurate the season’s celebrations in Nativity Square. But this year, none of these things are happening because of Israel’s continuing assault on the Gaza Strip, and because of economic hardship.

The streets and courtyards in Bethlehem are largely empty, the roads leading to the city have been sealed off by Israeli forces, and several towns in the area have been violently raided by armed Israeli soldiers.

Churches across Palestine announced the cancellation of all Christmas festivities in an expression of unity with Gaza – limiting activities to services and prayers.

All of this has affected Christmas tourism, which was revived only last year following a two-year hiatus due to health and travel restrictions related to the coronavirus pandemic.

Bethlehem/Mosab Shawer
Juqman and his family have been working with olive wood for many years [Mosab Shawer /Al Jazeera

Bethlehem usually receives up to 1.5 million tourists every year, according to the Palestinian ministry for tourism and culture.

Local businesses have especially suffered throughout the last few years, including Jack Issa Juqman’s carvings and antiques shop.

The 52-year-old has been making wooden statues and carvings related to Jesus since he was a teenager, just like his father and grandfather before him. It is believed that the workshop dates back about 200 years, Juqman told Al Jazeera.

He considers the “traditional craft … a family inheritance”. Working with olive wood, making intricate designs and durable pieces, is something the family takes great pride in.

This specific profession and craft, Juqman said, stresses the extent of the Palestinian people’s connection to their homeland.

The wood comes from olive trees, which are an important symbol of Palestinians’ attachment to their land. It takes many years to nurture, grow and harvest olive trees.

Every year, workers inside the facility work tirelessly on crafting and selling the pieces, Juqman said.

[Mosab Shawer /Al Jazeera]
Vendors like Juqman were expecting the tourism sector to finally recover after two years of COVID-19 restrictions [Mosab Shawer /Al Jazeera]

They work “like a beehive” in preparation for the Christmas season, he said, which peaks during October, November and December.

But this year, the “blow” came early, on October 7, following the Hamas attacks. The events that quickly unfolded after have caused tourists to disappear from the southern West Bank town, Juqman said.

“We already had to let nine employees go” he said.

‘Impossible to rejoice’

Vendors like Juqman had suffered “setbacks” due to “quarantines, and COVID measures” in recent years, which caused a decline in the economy, he said.

They were hoping for “a prosperous season” around the holiday season this year, he added.

He said he believes what’s happening in the West Bank amounts to “collective punishment”, and is unprecedented. It threatens the existence of hotels, companies and the entire tourism sector in Bethlehem, he added.

Rula Maayah, the Palestinian minister for tourism, said that the tourism sector has incurred significant losses as a result of the Israeli assault on Gaza.

The losses for this year are expected to amount to $200m, Maayah said. According to her, at least 60 percent of the losses directly affect Bethlehem.

People from all over the world, including the United States, Russia Romania, Poland, Italy, Spain and India would visit the city every year, Maayah said.

At a time when the world is celebrating Christmas, Bethlehem is “sad, silent, in pain, and completely besieged”, Maayah said.

Bethlehem/Mosab Shawer
Bethlehem usually receives up to 1.5 million tourists every year, according to the Palestinian ministry for tourism and culture [Mosab Shawer/Al Jazeera]

Mosab Shawer

“No one can reach it or leave it, its people are without work and without hope as a result of the disruption in tourism,” which is the backbone of its economy, she added.

Even the heads of religious establishments in Bethlehem speak of the importance of cancelling celebrations this year.

Pastor of the Evangelical Lutheran Church of the Nativity in Bethlehem, Munther Isaac, said it is “impossible to rejoice” this year when there is a “genocidal war against our people in Gaza”.

“Every year we put a Christmas tree in this place, but this year, we welcome Christmas without a tree and without lights,” he told Al Jazeera.

The church decided that its Christmas Nativity scene this year would reflect the “painful reality” of children living in Palestine today, Issac said.

This is why it placed the symbolic Baby Jesus in a manger of rubble and destruction, as a “message of solidarity with those suffering in Gaza”, he said.

“If Christ were to be born today, he would be born under the rubble”, amid Israeli attacks, he added.

Isaac said he hopes the scene will tell the world about Palestine’s need for “justice” and for the urgent need for a ceasefire in Gaza.

Bethlehem/Mosab Shwer
The Evangelical Lutheran Church decided that its Christmas Nativity scene this year would reflect the ‘painful reality’ of children living in Palestine today [Mosab Shwer/Al Jazeera]

Issa Thaljieh, a 40-year-old Greek Orthodox parish priest at the Church of the Nativity in Bethlehem, agrees, and said cancelling Christmas celebrations in solidarity with the people in Gaza sends a clear “message to the world”.

“We see children, women and elderly being killed amid widespread destruction. It is difficult to remain silent about what is happening,” Thaljieh said.

He said the church hopes to “open the eyes and conscience” of people around the world so that they can “see” the Palestinian people who seek to live without occupation.

The “crimes of the occupation” have stripped Palestinians of their joy, Thaljieh said.

Since October 7, more than 20,000 Palestinians have been killed in the blockaded Gaza Strip. Meanwhile, at least 275 Palestinians, including 63 children, have been killed by Israeli forces or armed settlers in the West Bank.

Thousands more have been arrested in near-daily raids on towns and villages across the West Bank.

Source: Al Jazeera