BETHLEHEM — Perhaps not since the birth of Jesus would it be said of this little town “how still we see thee lie.”
But this year, Manger Square was mostly empty and devoid of Christian pilgrims from abroad who normally throng into the Church of the Nativity at this time of year.
The decision by Israel to close its borders to foreigners through the Christmas holiday was a blow to the Israeli tourism industry, but it could be the death knell for Palestinian tourism.
Foreigners can only enter Palestinian areas through Israeli land crossings. So when Israel shuts its borders, it inadvertently shuts the Palestinians’ as well.
Instead of foreigners, a few thousand visitors trickled across the checkpoint – mainly Christian Arabs from Israeli towns and other Christian Palestinian villages.
At the Berry Hut, a bakery in Beit Sahour – the town next to Bethlehem which is where the shepherds are believed to have been told by the angels of Jesus’ birth – Christmas cookies and gingerbread houses lined the shelves. But workers told ALL ARAB NEWS that the lack of foreign visitors took a major toll on business this year.
Some festivities continued nevertheless for local Christians on Christmas Eve as scouts from Catholic churches led processions from their churches to Manger Square, replete with bagpipes and drums. Worshippers who entered the church had a rare bit of quiet time for reflection seldom experienced at this time of year.
It was in Bethlehem that the first COVID outbreak was reported in March 2020 when the pandemic first made its way to these lands. The city, which relies heavily on tourism, has been bereft of this important economic input due to Israel’s border closures over the past 21 months.
Instead, the northern Israeli city of Nazareth outshone Bethlehem, with thousands of visitors from around the country joining the indigenous Christian population in a holiday parade and enjoying the lights and decorations in the city. It was a relief to the residents as most of last year’s celebrations in Nazareth were canceled due to the pandemic.
But getting back to Bethlehem, holiday cheer was on a low flame. Israeli tour guides said hotel owners are selling their properties while businesses are closing down, including olive wood workshops that make the quintessential Bethlehem souvenirs. During this time, the Palestinian Authority has provided no compensation to tourism industry workers, according to reports.
The indigenous Christians – and the tourism industries in both Israel and the Palestinian Authority – have another shot at Christmas when Orthodox Christians celebrate the holiday on Jan. 6. But at this point, it seems unlikely that the borders will be reopened by then, or that tourists will surge into the region.