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Despite Early Optimism, Palestinians Worried About Another Christmas Closure
Christmas tree lighting ceremony in Bethlehem in the West Bank on December 4, 2021. (Suhaib Mustafa)

Despite Early Optimism, Palestinians Worried About Another Christmas Closure

Late last month, Israel shut its airport to foreign travelers for 14 days due to the omicron variant; the hope is that the ban will end as scheduled, in time for Christmas travel.

Around 15,000 people, mostly Palestinians, braved the cold weather to participate in the lighting of a giant Christmas tree outside the Church of the Nativity in Bethlehem, while hoping that the new COVID-19 variant doesn’t ruin another holiday season in the biblical town in the West Bank.

The overcrowded square on Saturday rejuvenated hopes among Palestinians that the Christmas spirit is back after more than a year of restrictions and closures.

Rami Haddad drove with his family from Ramallah to attend the event.

“We are ecstatic. We waited a year for this to happen. It’s nice to see the tree and people out again, it feels like Christmas for sure,” he told The Media Line.

A year ago, Manger Square stood empty on the night the Christmas tree was lit. Only a handful of people gathered around the giant tree on that cold, dark night, with just the mayor and his staff on hand to flip the light switch signaling the start of the season. The doors to the Church of the Nativity, where Christians believe Jesus was born, were shuttered, and – due to the absence of tourists – hotel rooms were empty and souvenir shops closed.

Rita Shehadeh brought her family with her to Bethlehem for the ceremony. She told The Media Line that lighting the tree this year made her appreciate life more.

“Not being able to attend last year was sad. We watched the event virtually but it’s not the same. I’m happy we are here tonight,” she said.

In the place where tradition says the season to be jolly all began, Bethlehem officials and merchants say there is little to celebrate right now.

In early December, Israel closed its airport to foreign travelers for 14 days to try to prevent the omicron variant from entering the country; the hope is that the ban will end as scheduled, in time for Christmas travel. Most tourists to the West Bank enter from Israel.

We have the will that we are going to celebrate Christmas in a very optimistic way this year, different from last year. We are preparing the city for the Christmas season, and we hope that interior tourism will take place.

Local businesses are worried that no tourists or pilgrims could mean that many will be forced to close.

Hanna Nissan, who owns a local souvenir shop, told The Media Line that there were hopeful signs that business could get back to normal, until news of a new coronavirus variant dashed those hopes.

“Until a week ago, we were expecting that tourism was on its way back with force. We started to see signs of movement. But with the airport closure, the tourists probably will not return until next year,” he said.

Nissan’s family has worked in the tourism sector for nearly five decades. He says this is the most difficult period he can recall.

Some 80 people were employed in his souvenir shops, including 25 of them in his wood carving factory, where now only three workers are left on a part-time basis.

Elias al-Arja told The Media Line that he started advertising his two Bethlehem hotels to international and local travelers last month, when restrictions began to ease. But after Israel shut down its airport and announced new entry requirements, cancellations began flooding his system.

“I had hired 10 employees and we were looking to hire more because we expected to be busy. But we cancelled that and may lay off some of them. I can’t pay their wages without work,” he said.

Christmas tree lighting ceremony in Bethlehem in the West Bank on December 4, 2021. (Suhaib Mustafa)

Last year, Arja, the owner of the Bethlehem Hotel, one of the largest in the city, told The Media Line that the absence of tourists had devastated his 220-room business.

He lamented the old days when his hotel lobby was packed with tourists from all over the globe.

“We used to receive around 10,000 people every day here in Bethlehem, accommodate them and feed them, it was good business. But from March until now, we are just spending money and have zero income,” he said.

All but eight of Arja’s 80 employees were sent home.

A year later, Arja said there was optimism in the air that quickly evaporated following Israel’s announcement that it was closing its airport.

Typically, at this time of year, thousands of people flock to the biblical town in the West Bank, which relies heavily on the Christmas-season business. Arja says the hospitality industry provides 90% of Bethlehem’s income.

The year 2019, the last year before the pandemic hit, was a record year for tourism in Bethlehem and the Palestinian Territories, with more than 3.5 million visitors pumping millions of dollars into the local economy.

Tens of thousands of jobs are linked to the tourism industry in the city, including hotel workers, souvenir shop owners, food service laborers and tour operators and guides. The vast majority of them have either lost their jobs completely, or work on a day-to-day arrangement.

The mayor of Bethlehem, Anton Salman, told The Media Line that the Christmas festivities will go ahead as planned. But the travel restrictions imposed by an increasing number of countries due to the new variant could put a damper on holiday spirits.

“We have the will that we are going to celebrate Christmas in a very optimistic way this year, different from last year. We are preparing the city for the Christmas season, and we hope that interior tourism will take place,” Salman said.

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