‘No joy in our hearts’: Bethlehem’s Christians face heartbreak at Christmas

Unlike other Christmases, 87-year-old Noha Helmi Tarazi’s family won’t be visiting her. Israeli bombs killed her sister and brother in Gaza, and maimed another sister.

Manger Square in Bethlehem, usually a focal point for Christmas celebrations, will not be decorated this year, and there will be no fireworks [Munjed Jadou/Al Jazeera]

Bethlehem, occupied West Bank – At Christmas, Noha Helmi Tarazi normally decorates her home with a large tree, which she describes as a symbol of light and joy.

The 87-year-old prepares the house for her family, who gather here each year, and makes Christmas sweets and large, festive meals. She usually places presents under the Christmas tree for her grandchildren, taking care to wrap them and label them with their names.

This year, no one will gather in her home. Even the children do not feel like celebrating, she says.

“There is no joy left in our hearts,” she says.

In the birthplace of Jesus Christ, the celebrations for Christmas are on hold. The decision to cancel Christmas has not been taken lightly, but it is one the church and community here are all united on, to show their solidarity with the Palestinians facing Israeli bombardment and a total siege in the Gaza Strip.

Israeli bombing and artillery fire have killed more than 20,000 people in Gaza since the war began on October 7, including at least 8,000 children. More than 300 people have been killed in the occupied West Bank, too, either by Israeli soldiers or by settlers who often attack with cover from Israeli troops.

The war has brought Bethlehem’s tourism – a bedrock of its economy – to a standstill at the time of the year when it usually peaks. Where visitors from around the world would usually throng Bethlehem’s markets around Christmas, the streets are empty this year.

But even if tourists were around, there’s no festivity among the residents of Bethlehem, many of whom have close family members in Gaza.

“How can we celebrate Christmas in the midst of this genocidal war?” asks Tarazi, known to those close to her as Um Shadi. “How can we celebrate when people in Gaza struggle to get even one meal a day?”

Um Shadi
Um Shadi at her home close to Bethlehem in the occupied West Bank. She has lost two siblings during the war in Gaza and a third has been severely injured during an air strike [Munjed Jadou/Al Jazeera]

The images and news of the suffering in Gaza under Israel’s relentless bombardment and ground invasion are too much for her. Um Shadi, whose family lives in Gaza City, says she has been particularly disturbed by videos of people fleeing towards the sea and being forced to boil seawater to make it drinkable.

She grew up in the Remal neighbourhood of Gaza City and lived there through her 20s during the 1960s. She has “beautiful memories of the sea”, where she used to swim at night. People lived in peace, she says.

Life became harder after she graduated with a degree in English literature from Cairo University in 1967. She was unable to return to Gaza because it was occupied by Israel that year, and instead, she spent the next 10 years in Libya, where her brothers also lived and where she met her husband.

She eventually returned to the occupied West Bank, where she made her home and built her Christmas rituals with her family – traditions she will skip this year.

‘This Christmas, may God have mercy on them’

All signs of Christmas have disappeared from the streets and homes of Bethlehem. Usually, people flock to Manger Square, which is adorned with decorations, to watch fireworks. None of that will happen this year.

Lots of people in Bethlehem and the surrounding area have relatives in Gaza. Um Shadi herself has lost a brother and a sister since the war began.

Her brother died on October 17 after being unable to receive a life-saving gallbladder operation because of the aerial bombardment of hospitals in the Strip.

Just a few days later, one of her sisters died in an air strike on St Porphyrius Greek Orthodox Church, where the family had taken shelter. Another sister lost a leg during the same bombardment.

Um Shadi
Um Shadi looks at a picture of her sister who was killed during an air strike on a Greek Orthodox church in Gaza where she had taken shelter from the Israeli bombardment [Munjed Jadou/Al Jazeera]

It has always been difficult to see her family, even before the war, but now she can barely even speak to them because of the telecommunications blackouts in Gaza.

Um Shadi was unable to attend another sister’s funeral in the enclave before the war because she was not granted a permit to travel there. Instead, her niece had to take a video of the ceremony for her.

In happier years, some Christians from Gaza had been able to obtain permits from the Israeli authorities to travel from Gaza to Bethlehem at Christmas – something her sisters and her friend Rose often did, she says.

“My sisters used to visit me, and I say this year on Christmas, may God have mercy on them.”

The agony of not being able to communicate with her family in Gaza is unbearable, she adds. It has brought her to “the brink of despair”.

Christmas used to be the one joyful event that everyone could count on each year, Um Shadi says. Now, that has gone, too.

Source: Al Jazeera