The biblical town of Bethlehem is gearing up for what residents hope will be a merry Christmas, with thousands of visitors expected to descend upon the traditional birthplace of Jesus as it rebounds from the coronavirus pandemic.
Tourism is the economic lifeblood of this town in the occupied West Bank, and for the past two years, the pandemic kept international visitors away. This year, visitors are back, hotels are full and local shopkeepers have reported a brisk business in the runup to the holiday.
“We are celebrating Christmas this year in a very much different way than last year,” said Palestinian Tourism Minister Rula Maayah. “We’re celebrating Christmas with pilgrims coming from all over the world.”
Just before midday, crowds were still sparse as police and businesses prepared for the celebrations.
Police were erecting barricades in Manger Square, as marching bands played drums and bagpipes. Foreign tourists meandered about and snapped selfies with the town’s large Christmas tree behind them.
Latin Patriarch Pierbattista Pizzaballa, the top Roman Catholic clergyman in the Holy Land, was expected to arrive from nearby Jerusalem to greet well-wishers.
Later, he was to celebrate Midnight Mass in the nearby Church of the Nativity, built on the spot where Christians believe Jesus was born.
Still, present-day reality was visible at Manger Square as banners showing photos of Palestinian prisoner Nasser Abu Hamid were prominently displayed.
The veteran prisoner died of cancer last week in an Israeli prison clinic after spending some 20 years behind bars for his conviction in the deaths of seven Israelis.