Hundreds of pilgrims celebrated Christmas in Bethlehem on Monday but Palestinian residents said there was little cause for holiday cheer in the town Christians revere as the birthplace of Jesus.
Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas attended the traditional midnight mass along with a few hundred worshippers in the Church of the Nativity, and morning saw Manger Square awash with the soft sounds of hymns and church bells.
“We need peace even more now,” said Hanna abu Eita, a 60-year-old Christian. “We only want a chance to live.”
Local officials said some 8,000 to 10,000 pilgrims would visit Bethlehem this Christmas, compared with 2,000 last year.
But residents and merchants said the estimate appeared high and that Israeli Arabs, rather than overseas pilgrims, made up the bulk of visitors.
Little cause for celebration
Israel’s army eased travel restrictions to allow foreigners as well as Israeli and Palestinian Christians from the West Bank and Gaza to visit the town over Christmas.
But residents said military checkpoints and the Israeli barrier cutting into land that Palestinians want for a state were constant reminders they had little cause for celebration.
A concrete wall, with an iron gate, blocks off the entrance to Bethlehem along the road from nearby Jerusalem.
Israel says the barrier, a mix of wire fencing and concrete walls, stops suicide bombers from reaching its cities.
Hundreds of pilgrims gathered in Manger Square, decorated with colored lights and Christmas trees. Worshippers also flocked to the grotto of the Church of the Nativity.
But six years after the start of a Palestinian uprising, and nearly a year after election victory by the Islamic militant group Hamas, hardship across the occupied West Bank has deepened.
Bethlehem’s own Palestinian Christian community is dwindling under pressure from the conflict with Israel and Western economic sanctions against the Hamas-led Palestinian government.
“The Christmas quiet and lights are an illusion,” said Khaled Bandak, 39, a Christian hotel owner in the town.
“People do not have money to spend. Christians are leaving because the situation is so dire. It is a gloomy atmosphere,” he said. “You see smiling faces, but inside we are not smiling.”
More than 3,000 Christians, about 10 percent of Bethlehem’s Christian population, have left the town since 2000, according to United Nations statistics.
“It is so beautiful in Bethlehem at Christmas, compared to the rest of the year,” said Charles Radloss, a 78-year-old American attending midnight mass. “People should be able to be jubilant all the time, especially in the Holy Land.”
At the mass, the Roman Catholic Church’s leader in the Holy Land, Latin Patriarch Michel Sabbah, a Palestinian, called for an end to fighting between Palestinian factions and for the revival of long-stalled Israeli-Palestinian peacemaking.
Tourism, the lifeblood of Bethlehem’s economy, has fallen sharply over the past six years. The average number of visitors has fallen to as low as 20,000 a month from about 100,000 before the Palestinian uprising. Unemployment in the town is estimated at about 65 percent.
Western sanctions on the Hamas-led Palestinian Authority have hit government employees, many of whom have not been paid for months. The West wants Hamas, sworn to Israel’s destruction, to change its stance as the main condition for renewing aid.