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Residents unfurl a giant Palestinian flag as they gather at the Manger Square outside the Church of the Nativity in the biblical city of Bethlehem in the occupied West Bank on Christmas Eve (according to Western tradition) on December 24, 2023. Image Credit: AFP

BETHLEHEM: A pall of gloom descended over Bethlehem on Christmas Eve as the Gaza war weighed heavily on the biblical city in the occupied West Bank and the usual crowds of pilgrims stayed away.

The traditional giant Christmas tree, marching bands and flamboyant nativity scene were all absent in the city celebrated as the birthplace of Jesus Christ.

While there were few festive lights, a huge Palestinian flag was unfolded in the centre of town and a banner declared that “The bells of Bethlehem ring for a ceasefire in Gaza”.

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Bethlehem usually throngs with pilgrims and tourists at this time of year. But many residents have fled and few visitors have come since the start of the Israel-Hamas war on October 7.

The bloody conflict was sparked when the Palestinian militants launched a deadly cross border attack on southern Israel, triggering a massive Israeli retaliation.

Palestinian Christians showed little appetite for celebration, with official events largely cancelled by the municipality.

Many in the community were unable to come to terms with the death and displacement of hundreds of thousands of their fellow Palestinians in the Gaza Strip.

“A lot of people are dying for this land,” said Nicole Najjar, an 18-year-old student. “It’s really hard to celebrate while our people are dying.”

Scouts hold a banners in solidarity with Palestinians in Gaza, on the day of a visit by the Latin Patriarch of Jerusalem, Pierbattista Pizzaballa to the Old City of Bethlehem. Image Credit: Reuters

Usually a huge Christmas tree is put up at Bethlehem’s Church of the Nativity, believed by Christians to be built on the spot where Christ was born.

This year there is an art installation expressing solidarity with Gazans: grey statues of Mary and Joseph placed in a pile of rubble.

On the building next door hung a large banner that read: “Stop the genocide, stop the displacement, lift the blockade” on Gaza.

‘Sorrow, loss’

The Hamas attack on October 7 left around 1,140 people dead in Israel, most of them civilians, according to an AFP tally based on the latest official Israeli figures.

The Palestinian militants also abducted around 250 people, 129 of whom Israel says remain in Gaza.

Vowing to destroy Hamas, Israel launched a relentless bombardment and ground invasion of Gaza, where 20,424 people have been killed, mostly women and children, according to the latest toll from the territory’s health ministry.

Wearing a keffiyeh Latin Patriarch of Jerusalem Pierbattista Pizzaballa arrives for Christmas Eve celebrations in Bethlehem. Image Credit: AFP

“This year is different,” said Mervat Murra, 50, a fashion designer in Bethlehem. “It is marked by sadness, sorrow, destruction, deprivation and loss.”

A marching band, which usually comes with loud bagpipes and tambourines, was absent this year.

“Our message every year for Christmas is a message of peace and love but this year it is message of sadness, grief and anger - a message as a response to what is happening in the Gaza Strip,” said Bethlehem’s Mayor Hanna Hanania.

Palestinian youth members of the scouting movement hold up banners condemning and calling for an end of the conflict. Image Credit: AFP

“The deaf international community must hear our voice.”

Speaking as he arrived at the Church of the Nativity, the Latin Patriarch of Jerusalem, Pierbattista Pizzaballa, said: “We are here to pray and to ask not only for a ceasefire, a ceasefire is not enough.

“We have to stop these hostilities and to turn the page because violence generates only violence.”

Wearing a black and white keffiyeh, he called for unity among Palestinians of all faiths.

‘We cry’

Church leaders in Jerusalem and the Bethlehem city council took the decision last month to forego “any unnecessarily festive” Christmas celebrations, in solidarity with Gazans.

The West Bank itself has also seen escalating violence since the start of the war, with more than 300 Palestinians killed by Israeli forces or settlers, local health officials say.

A girl sits by the star in the grotto at the Church of the Nativity on Christmas Eve, in Bethlehem. Image Credit: AFP

“We have no taste for celebrations” during the war, said Mitri Raheb, a pastor from the Gaza Strip.

He added that in the West Bank, too, every day “we cry for young people killed by the Israelis”.

The West Bank has been occupied by Israel since the 1967 Arab-Israeli War.

“All we want for Christmas right now is a ceasefire, a sustainable ceasefire to stop this atrocity,” said Raheb.

“Bethlehem gave Jesus to the world and it’s high time for the world to give Bethlehem and Gaza peace.”