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Natal returns to Belém after two years of COVID containment | News from the Occupied West Bank

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With a giant evergreen tree, colorful balloons lining the streets and selfies at the Church of the Nativity, Christmas tourism has returned to the occupied West Bank city of Bethlehem after two years of COVID-related restrictions.

Revered in Christian tradition as the birthplace of Christ, the city of Bethlehem welcomes thousands of pilgrims and tourists at Christmas each year, an unexpected harvest that has dried up in the last two years due to the pandemic and travel restrictions.

Now, with restrictions lifted in the occupied Palestinian territories and in Israel, home to the closest international airport with access to Bethlehem, the southern West Bank city has taken on a festive air.

Boy Scouts marched with bagpipes while thousands of onlookers in the streets held balloons and cotton candy.

Jerusalem’s Latin Patriarch Pierbattista Pizzaballa greeted worshipers upon their arrival in the city, before leading the annual Christmas Eve procession into the Church of the Nativity.

People gather at the Church of the Nativity in Bethlehem, in the Israeli-occupied West Bank [Mussa Issa Qawasma/Reuters]

“Christmas is the city’s festival and we dedicate a lot of time and effort to prepare for it,” Bethlehem mayor Hanna Hanania told the AFP news agency.

“We wanted to have an international participation, and we organized children’s songs and shows with singers from France, South Africa and Malta,” he added.

Nida Ibrahim of Al Jazeera, reporting from Bethlehem, said Palestinians are looking forward to a Christmas season without any restrictions from COVID-19.

However, it was also a year “marked by losses”, added Ibrahim.

“There was a lot of tension here in the occupied West Bank – more than 230 Palestinians were killed by Israeli forces,” she said, referring to those killed in the West Bank and the besieged Gaza Strip.

“The fact that Palestinians feel they have no hope of a better life – of ending the Israeli occupation … affects the celebrations,” Ibrahim said.

‘Very difficult challenges’

Meanwhile, tourists have converged on the streets, shops and stone buildings of this Palestinian city, where Christians and Muslims live side by side.

It was “wonderful to be here,” said Paul Wittenberger, a 40-year-old American from Michigan who was visiting with his father and brothers.

“We’ve been here for three days and the weather is good, we’re lucky to be out of the storm” that swept across the United States this weekend, he said.

Michael al-Siriani, owner of a pottery and pottery workshop, was delighted to see tourists returning to the city after two difficult years when local hotels were empty.

“Things are much better now after the coronavirus pandemic,” he said. “In addition, tourists are sleeping in the city again.”

While the numbers have not reached pre-pandemic levels, the return of tourists has visibly lifted spirits in Belém.

The Palestinian Authority, which governs the Israeli-occupied West Bank, confirmed Siriani’s sentiments.

Latin Patriarch of Jerusalem Pierbattista Pizzaballa attends Christmas celebrations in Bethlehem in the Israeli-occupied West Bank [Mohamad Torokman/Reuters]

“Since the beginning of this year, but more specifically since March, we have started to receive pilgrims and tourists from all over the world,” said the Palestinian Minister of Tourism, Rula Maayah.

“So far, we’ve received around 700,000 tourists from all over the world,” she said.

Latin Patriarch Pierbattista Pizzaballa, the leading Roman Catholic cleric in the Holy Land, has arrived from Jerusalem and is due to celebrate midnight mass.

“We are experiencing very difficult challenges,” he said. “But the message of Christmas is a message of peace.”

“It is possible to change things,” he added. “We will be very clear on what we have to do and what we have to say to preserve the importance of unity and reconciliation among all.”

Pizzaballa walked through Manger Square, waving to supporters before heading to the Church of the Nativity, built on the site where Christians believe Jesus was born.

The current reality was visible in Manger Square, with banners showing photos of Palestinian political prisoner Nasser Abu Hmaid being prominently displayed. Hmaid died of cancer last week in Israeli custody after spending nearly 20 years behind bars, despite longstanding calls for his release and allegations of Israeli medical malpractice after his late diagnosis more than a year ago.

Meanwhile, pilgrims were in deep prayer at the Church of the Nativity, while others took selfies wearing red and white Santa hats, hours before the traditional midnight mass and their best wishes for peace.