A Covid Christmas Involves Bethlehem

BETHLEHEM, West Financial institution — The Church of the Nativity was closed, and most memento retailers shuttered. Lodges which are often bought out months upfront had been abandoned.

Among the many few indicators of life on the principle road in Bethlehem’s Outdated Metropolis final Friday had been the chirping of some birds and stray cats scavenging an overflowing rubbish can.

Earlier within the month, only some folks attended the tree-lighting ceremony in Manger Sq., an occasion that often heralds the metamorphosis of the quiet West Financial institution city of Bethlehem into one of many primary seasonal points of interest of worldwide Christendom.

The coronavirus pandemic has put a damper on Christmas on the place the place it’s stated to have all begun.

“Nice unhappiness,” Father Ibrahim Shomali, the chancellor of the Latin Patriarchate of Jerusalem, stated of this 12 months’s celebrations. “We’re very annoyed, however what can we do? We have to settle for the fact and do the suitable factor.”

Midnight Mass on the Church of the Nativity is often one of many social occasions of the 12 months on the occupied West Financial institution. The traditional limestone church takes on the environment of a glittering film premiere as diplomats and Palestinian officers emerge from motorcades of shiny BMWs and Mercedes in tailor-made fits and stylish attire.

This 12 months, the ceremony willbe restricted to church officers, a handful of European diplomats and Bethlehem’s mayor. The Palestinian Authority imposed powerful antivirus restrictions on Bethlehem on Dec. 10, establishing checkpoints round its perimeter, ordering the closing of eating places, cafes, faculties and gymnasiums, and forbidding practically all massive gatherings.

Bethlehem has about 1,000 confirmed, energetic circumstances of Covid-19, based on official knowledge, though the true quantity is considered a lot increased. All intensive care beds at hospitals are occupied, the Well being Ministry stated.

Throughout a current go to, the expansive foyer of the 222-room Bethlehem Resort was silent. The leather-based couches and chairs had been empty, the lights and heating had been turned off, and a high quality coating of mud was amassing on espresso tables.

“There’s often nowhere to sit down throughout this time of 12 months,” stated Elias al-Arja, the lodge proprietor, sporting a winter coat and a big black masks. “It ordinarily will get so crowded that there’s little room to maneuver.”

Since March, when authorities found the primary circumstances of the virus within the Bethlehem space, Mr. al-Arja stated, the lodge has struggled to pay its money owed. He needed to lay off all however two of his 80 staff. To repay money owed, he stated, he has bought his second residence in Ramallah and a plot of land in Jericho.

“It’s been devastating,” he stated.

Till the pandemic, the tourism business within the West Financial institution, which depends closely on the Christmas-time enterprise in Bethlehem, was anticipating its greatest 12 months in twenty years. The West Financial institution had greater than three million guests final 12 months, tourism officers stated.

And regardless of competitors from Israeli tour suppliers and the challenges of doing enterprise underneath occupation, Palestinian travel-and-tourism corporations had been hiring, providing new itineraries and predicting continued progress for 2020.

“We went from our highest to lowest level,” stated Tony Khashram, the pinnacle of the Holy Land Incoming Tour Operators Affiliation. “Every thing fell aside within the snap of a finger.”

Tens of hundreds of individuals within the tourism business — together with tour guides, tour operators, memento store homeowners, and restaurant and lodge staff — have misplaced their jobs, the Tourism Ministry estimates. Tour operators are struggling to repay money owed and to gather a whole bunch of hundreds of {dollars} in funds due from companions overseas.

Retailers, too, have been devastated. The few retailers who opened their retailers stated the absence of vacationers this 12 months has sharpened their emotions of exasperation over the pandemic’s financial fallout.

“The entire world got here throughout Christmas final 12 months,” stated Sami Khamis, whose hole-in-the-wall tea store close to Manger Sq. affords a specialty tea with complete items of recent sage, ginger, mint, rosemary and cinnamon. “However I’m now hardly making sufficient cash to place meals on the desk. This can be a disastrous scenario.”

The seven or eight close by memento retailers — which often do a brisk commerce in kaffiyehs, child Jesus dolls on beds of straw, and olivewood crosses embedded with a vial of soil from the Mount of Olives — had been all closed.

In his workplace overlooking the Church of the Nativity, Mayor Anton Salman stated he was unhappy that Bethlehem wouldn’t have a good time Christmas because it usually does, however he emphasised that public well being was paramount. He contracted the virus final month.

“We’ve skilled tough circumstances throughout Christmas previously,” he stated, alluding to earlier violent conflicts with Israel. “However the pandemic is one thing fairly completely different — there are such a lot of unknowns.”

He stated the town wouldn’t abandon its traditions, simply scale them down.

The Christmas Market in Manger Sq., he stated, was held for a single day, on Sunday, as a substitute of the standard two. The viewers for the annual scouts parade, through which dozens of girls and boys march via Bethlehem on Christmas Eve taking part in Palestinian anthems and Christmas songs, will probably be restricted to native residents.

“We don’t really feel like Christmas is going on,” stated Lorette Zoughbi, 66, who watched the tree-lighting on tv although it happened simply up the road from her house. “There’s no particular environment. Nowadays really feel like another days that come and go.”

Bethlehem’s Christians, who’re largely Roman Catholic and Jap Orthodox, had been as soon as the bulk. However the Christian inhabitants has dwindled via emigration whereas the Muslim inhabitants has grown. Now Bethlehem, like all Palestinian cities within the West Financial institution, is predominantly Muslim.

Ms. Zoughbi, a member of a distinguished Christian household in Bethlehem, has felt so bereft of Christmas spirit that she and her husband didn’t even hassle to tug their full-sized tree out of storage. As an alternative, they caught a small metallic one in a nook of their house.

For a lot of Palestinian Christians, the worst a part of this Christmas season is having to cancel extended-family gatherings.

Ms. Zoughbi’s clan often gathers for a dinner of qidreh, a rice and lamb dish, at a big restaurant with 150 of her kin, typically adopted by a night of drumming and singing Arabic Christmas songs.

“These are a number of the solely instances all of us come collectively,” she stated.

Nihaya Musleh, a resident of Beit Sahour, instantly east of Bethlehem, stated she had deliberate to host Harumiya, an area custom through which males — or, as in her case, the household matriarch — invite their married daughters and sisters residence for a particular meal 40 days earlier than Christmas.

Ms. Musleh stated she and her son had invited 28 relations to her residence for a luncheon, promising to implement social distancing.

However after she spent two days cooking, Ms. Musleh stated, her daughter-in-law examined optimistic for the virus, so she known as it off.

“I’d be mendacity if I advised you I wasn’t sad about lacking out on Harumiya,” she stated. “However I’m glad we came upon concerning the optimistic check the day earlier than — it was a present from God.”

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