Christmas celebrations in Gaza and Bethlehem
Bethlehem opened its Christmas celebrations earlier this month with fireworks, traditional dances and a birth show of Jesus, when a large Christmas tree was erected in the main crib square. Before the plague, thousands of tourists and pilgrims traveled to Bethlehem each year to visit the city’s many sacred sites, including the Church of the Nativity, built according to belief in the exact place where Jesus was born. As is well known, tourists cannot come to Israel due to fear of the Omicron variant, so Bethlehem relies mainly on locals to increase tourism this holiday season.”Unemployment has risen sharply,” Bethlehem Mayor Anton Salman said. “To that end, our only way and our only choice is to refocus on Bethlehem and encourage people to come and visit the city.”

This is the second year in a row that the city of Bethlehem, which usually serves as an attraction for Christian pilgrims from all over the world, will face the possibility of a Christmas season with very few tourists, if any. The holiday business in the city flourished there before the corona plague. The same is true in 2019, when almost 1.5 million visitors came to Bethlehem, a figure that according to officials indicates the peak of tourism in the city.

As the holiday season approached this year, tour guides and hotel owners hoped for the return of tourism in the city, as thousands of foreigners booked hotels in the city. The numbers were still well below pre-plague levels, and that was not enough to signal a recovery – but it was better than nothing.

The city is empty of tourists, Bethlehem | Photo: RTR

Revenues from domestic tourism are relatively consistently poor: only 11% of total revenues in 2018, according to official Palestinian Authority data. The big money comes from visitors from abroad, who are likely to be few this year.

“I hope that this year we will see an improvement in ‘domestic tourism’ from the Arabs in the north,” said Hashram, who owns a tourism business in East Jerusalem, adding that an increased Arab-Israeli pilgrimage could help offset some of the losses.

The Palestinian Authority has granted some tax exemptions to hotels in difficulty following the corona plague. But the authority, which is already facing a large budget deficit, has not distributed mass subsidies to the tourism industry as a whole.

What does Christmas look like in Gaza?

Last Friday, the tiny Christian community of Gaza celebrated the season by lighting a Christmas tree. Hundreds attended the ceremony at a Christian youth center in the Gaza Strip. “The feeling (of joy) today was immense and wonderful, especially when the tree was not lit for a year because of the corona plague. We are celebrating the birth of Jesus Messiah, and the Christmas tree is a good omen symbol.” Suhail Terzi, head of the YMCA branch in Gaza, told the AP.

Last year’s celebration was canceled due to the outbreak of the corona virus in Gaza and this year, many Gazan Christians will be celebrating Christmas. “The last year in the Gaza Strip has been a difficult year in which we have seen war and the corona plague,” Terzi said. “I hope that next year will be better, when peace will prevail throughout the world and the world will help us accept our rights and allow us, the Palestinians, to visit the Holy Land, the West Bank and Bethlehem.”

Last month, Israel announced that it would allow 500 Christians from Gaza to enter its territory and the West Bank to celebrate Christmas. Today, about 1,000 Christians live in Gaza who have not publicly celebrated Christmas in the Gaza Strip since Hamas came to power in 2007.

By Editor

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