June 18, 2024

There will be no musical festivities. No tree-lighting ceremony. No extravagant decorations that normally bedeck the West Bank city of Bethlehem at Christmas. With the war in Gaza raging, this is a city in mourning.

In perhaps the most overt display of how Israel’s war in Gaza has dampened Christmas celebrations in the city seen as the birthplace of Jesus, a Lutheran church put up its crèche, but with a sad and symbolic twist. The baby Jesus — wrapped in a keffiyeh, the black-and-white checkered scarf that has become a badge of Palestinian identity — is lying not in a makeshift cradle of hay and wood. Instead, he lies among the rubble of broken bricks, stones and tiles that represent so much of Gaza’s destruction.

“We’ve been glued to our screens, seeing children pulled from under the rubble day after day. We’re broken by these images,” said the Rev. Munther Isaac, the pastor at the Evangelical Lutheran Christmas Church who created the crèche. “God is under the rubble in Gaza, this is where we find God right now.”

The war began on Oct. 7, in response to Hamas’s surprise attack on Israel that left about 1,200 dead. As the conflict enters its third month, some of the most ubiquitous images of the death and destruction have been of dead Palestinian children being pulled from the ruins of Israeli airstrikes. Nearly half of Gaza’s population of 2.2 million are children, and about 70 percent of those killed are women and children, according to the Gaza Health Ministry and the United Nations.

The ministry says about 20,000 Palestinians have been killed since the war began.

Though Gaza is some 70 kilometers from Bethlehem, which is in the Israeli-occupied West Bank, Palestinians in the city feel it acutely. They fret about family and friends in Gaza, and find their own lives restricted — whether through more draconian Israeli limits since the war began on movement into and out of the city, the economic fallout of the war, or canceled Christmas celebrations.

Last month, the patriarchs and heads of various churches in Jerusalem in a statement urged their congregations to forgo “unnecessarily festive activities.” Instead, the statement said, priests and worshipers should “focus more on the spiritual meaning of Christmas in their pastoral activities and liturgical celebrations.”

Local Christian leaders say there are about 35,000 Christians in the Bethlehem area. The symbolism of Christmas is part of the soul of the city.

But the war has cast a pall.

Typically, a giant Christmas tree is erected in the city center on a stage in Manger Square — named for the manger where Jesus’ parents, Mary and Joseph, are said to have sought shelter — and a tree-lighting ceremony takes place with great fanfare. But this year, there is none. The church steeples that dot the city’s skyline and streets are normally adorned with Christmas decorations. But they are now bare.

Still, one tradition that will go on, though in a bit toned-down version, is the famous Procession of the Patriarch, in which the Roman Catholic Patriarch travels from Jerusalem to Bethlehem to mark Joseph and Mary’s journey.

The patriarch will start the procession as usual on Christmas Eve, accompanied by boy and girl scouts, but this year they will march silently, without playing musical instruments.

Once the patriarch arrives in Bethlehem, he will walk down Star Street, the historical street that goes through the old city to the Church of the Nativity, built on the site where Jesus is believed to have been born. He will then celebrate a midnight Mass.

Usually Mahmoud Abbas, the president of the Palestinian Authority, and other dignitaries attend the Mass, but it is unclear if they will this year.

Inside the hallowed archways of the church on the edge of Bethlehem’s old city, there are some signs of the holiday; wreaths and red-and-gold ornaments bedeck the columns and some church entrances.

“We will avoid music, outside ceremonies and outside decorations,” said the Rev. Rami Asakrieh, a parish priest of the Latin church of Saint Catherine at the Church of the Nativity. But he added that inside the church, decorations were important.

The horror of war cannot be allowed to bury the spirit of Jesus, he said on a recent day, as church workers set up a small Christmas tree along one of the corridors. “Despite the circumstances, we must still show that Jesus is the source of happiness and peace in the church.”

For the residents of Bethlehem, the war has also reverberated economically.

Tourism makes up a significant portion of the area’s income, said Bethlehem’s mayor, Hanna Hanania, especially during the holiday season. And people are not coming now.

On average, 1.5 million to two million foreign tourists visit Bethlehem city annually. But since the war began, the tourism sector came to a complete stop, and, Mr. Hanania said, “economic life is now paralyzed.”

Rony Fakhouri, a 27-year-old social worker and manager at the Dar Al Majus guesthouse, said the establishment had lost about 100,000 shekels, or about $27,000, in revenue since the start of the war.

He said that the guesthouse usually receives at least 200 guests between October and mid-January. “Between Oct. 7 and today, we’ve had exactly 12 individuals,” he said.

Mr. Fakhouri also works as a night shift duty manager at another hotel, but he has now lost that job.

“Even during the Covid-19 pandemic, they let me keep my job,” he said. “But this time with the war, they’ve let me go.”

“Even if the war stops,” he added, “tourism won’t immediately bounce back.”

For Yousef Al Zuluf, a 22-year-old accountant and fashion designer in Bethlehem, the war in Gaza has hit particularly close. His maternal grandparents and aunt lived there.

His grandfather was reluctant to leave his home even after the fighting started because he had already been displaced once before. He was about 6 years old when he moved to Gaza at the time of the Nakba — as Palestinians refer to the displacement of hundreds of thousands of Palestinians amid Israel’s declaration of independence in 1948.

“He’s about 82 years old,” Mr. Zuluf said, “he doesn’t want to start a new life somewhere else.”

The family members finally did leave Gaza, using their foreign passports, but only after weeks of living with too little food and water and barely a place to sleep.

For Pastor Isaac, whose Lutheran church has gained some fame with his rubble-themed manger scene, the focus during this holy time needs to be on Israel’s bombardment of Gaza, not on the cancellation of Christmas festivities.

“We don’t see this as a war against Hamas,” he said. “It’s a war against Palestinians.”

He came up with the idea of the altered manger scene as a way of both marking the birth of Jesus, but also acknowledging the death of so many children.

“This is what Christmas looks like now in Palestine, children being killed, houses destroyed and families displaced,” he said of his crèche. “We see the image of Jesus in every child that is killed in Gaza.”