Virus, Israeli occupation shatter Bethlehem’s Christmas festivities

Special Virus, Israeli occupation shatter Bethlehem’s Christmas festivities
Issa Kassissieh, better known as the Santa Claus of Jerusalem, rides a camel inside Jerusalem’s Old City on Tuesday. The region will celebrate a quiet Christmas this year because of the pandemic. (AFP)
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Updated 24 December 2020

Virus, Israeli occupation shatter Bethlehem’s Christmas festivities

Virus, Israeli occupation shatter Bethlehem’s Christmas festivities
  • COVID-19 has been a ‘catastrophe,’ affecting hotels, guides, shops, factories, restaurants, tour buses

AMMAN: Life was good for the Hosh family at Christmas last year. Fayez, 62, was making a decent living from his home-based woodcarving shop.

He was producing quality handcrafted statues of the holy family that sold in Bethlehem and nearby Jerusalem souvenir shops.

Tourism was flourishing and his three sons George, Rami, and Richard also had employment. George, the oldest, now 36 years old, was doing well in the home decorations business and his family was looking forward to 2020 as the year when he would finally get married and start his own family.

But all their hopes and dreams were dashed due to the COVID-19 outbreak.

“The stoppage of tourism was not gradual. It came to a screeching stop. Our city, unlike other Palestinian towns, is almost totally dependent on tourism,” Hosh said.

In 2019, a record 1.4 million tourists (20 percent up on 2018) visited the Church of the Nativity, in Bethlehem, built by Queen Helena in the fourth century after her son the Roman Emperor Constantine adopted Christianity.

The COVID-19 pandemic had been a “catastrophe” for Bethlehem, Hosh added, affecting hotels, tour guides, souvenir shops, factories, restaurants, and tour buses.

With no tourists in Bethlehem, Hosh said he would have gone to Jerusalem, where some souvenir shops remained open, but it would have been difficult to get a travel permit from the Israelis.

His wife, Rita, told Arab News that COVID-19 had impacted on the whole family. George’s marriage had been postponed and her sons’ tradition of buying new clothes for the Christmas holiday had this year been abandoned.

The hit on family finances had also curtailed food preparations for the holiday. “It depends on our budget. But anyway, this year no one is coming or going so there is no need to make anything fancy,” she said.

For nearly a year the Hosh family has had virtually no income. The only exception was a one-off payment of 700 shekels ($200) that the Palestinian government gave to Rami from a special fund established to help mitigate financial losses brought about as a result of the global health crisis.

Jack Sara, president of Bethlehem Bible College which runs the Shepherd’s Society charitable organization, told Arab News: “We are trying to help hundreds of families both in terms of food and medicine supplies as well as more costly medical operations for people who have absolutely no money to cover these basic costs.

“We do a lot of visits to people’s homes and we can see how difficult the situation is. The problem isn’t only the pandemic but also the occupation. Our people see no future.

“The situation is unstable and unpredictable, and the economic aftereffects of the coronavirus outbreak make a bad situation even worse,” he said.

Former mayor of Bethlehem, Vera Baboun, told Arab News that unlike previous years the Christmas pageantry, celebrations, and midnight mass would be muted.

“For the first time ever, the Nativity church has zero tourists and pilgrims during the Christmas season and as a result of the lockdown Bethlehem stands lonely without pilgrims or tourists or even local believers,” she said.

Baboun estimated that the COVID-19 pandemic had affected 40 percent of Bethlehemite families whose source of income was directly dependent on tourism and another 40 percent indirectly connected to the sector.

The Hosh family can trace its ancestry in Bethlehem back for decades and has always joined the uplifting Christmas celebrations.

“My sons wanted to attend the tree-lighting ceremony but were prevented in order to avoid the spread of the virus. I am sure for the first time in my living memory we will not be out welcoming the patriarch on Christmas Eve.”

This year the Latin Catholic Church has a new spiritual leader. Pierbattista Pizzaballa was appointed its patriarch on Nov. 6. He will be leading midnight mass in an empty church because of the health regulations.