On Christmas Eve, Bethlehem resembles ghost town as celebrations are halted due to war

On Christmas Eve, Bethlehem resembles ghost town as celebrations are halted due to war
Catholic clergy walk in procession next to the Church of the Nativity, traditionally believed to be the birthplace of Jesus, on Christmas Eve, in the West Bank city of Bethlehem, Sunday, Dec. 24, 2023. (AP)
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Updated 24 December 2023
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On Christmas Eve, Bethlehem resembles ghost town as celebrations are halted due to war

On Christmas Eve, Bethlehem resembles ghost town as celebrations are halted due to war
  • Normally bustling biblical birthplace of Jesus looks like a ghost town on Christmas Eve
  • Officials decided to forgo celebrations due to the Israel-Hamas war

BETHLEHEM: The normally bustling biblical birthplace of Jesus resembled a ghost town on Sunday, as Christmas Eve celebrations in Bethlehem were called off due to the Israel-Hamas war.
The festive lights and Christmas tree that normally decorate Manger Square were missing, as were the throngs of foreign tourists and jubilant youth marching bands that gather in the West Bank town each year to mark the holiday. Dozens of Palestinian security forces patrolled the empty square.
“This year, without the Christmas tree and without lights, there’s just darkness,” said Brother John Vinh, a Franciscan monk from Vietnam who has lived in Jerusalem for six years.
He said he always comes to Bethlehem to mark Christmas, but this year was especially sobering, as he gazed at a nativity scene in Manger Square with a baby Jesus wrapped in a white shroud, reminiscent of the thousands of children killed in the fighting in Gaza. Barbed wire surrounded the scene, the grey rubble reflecting none of the joyous lights and bursts of color that normally fill the square during the Christmas season.
The cancelation of Christmas festivities is a severe blow to the town’s economy. Tourism accounts for an estimated 70 percent of Bethlehem’s income — almost all of that during the Christmas season.
With many major airlines canceling flights to Israel, few foreigners are visiting. Local officials say over 70 hotels in Bethlehem have been forced to close, leaving thousands of people unemployed.
Gift shops were slow to open on Christmas Eve, although a few did once the rain had stopped pouring down. There were few visitors, however.
“We can’t justify putting out a tree and celebrating as normal, when some people (in Gaza) don’t even have houses to go to,” said Ala’a Salameh, one of the owners of Afteem Restaurant, a family-owned falafel restaurant just steps from the square.
Salameh said Christmas Eve is usually the busiest day of the year. “Normally, you can’t find a single chair to sit, we’re full from morning till midnight,” said Salameh. This year, just one table was taken, by journalists taking a break from the rain.
Under a banner that read “Bethlehem’s Christmas bells ring for a cease-fire in Gaza,” a few teenagers offered small inflatable Santas, but no one was buying. Instead of their traditional musical march through the streets of Bethlehem, young scouts stood silently with flags. A group of local students unfurled a massive Palestinian flag as they stood in silence.
“Our message every year on Christmas is one of peace and love, but this year it’s a message of sadness, grief and anger in front of the international community with what is happening and going on in the Gaza Strip,” Bethlehem’s mayor, Hana Haniyeh, said in an address to the crowd.
Dr. Joseph Mugasa, a pediatrician, was one of the few international visitors. He said his tour group of 15 people from Tanzania was “determined” to come to the region despite the situation.
“I’ve been here several times, and it’s quite a unique Christmas, as usually there’s a lot of people and a lot of celebrations,” he said. “But you can’t celebrate while people are suffering, so we are sad for them and praying for peace.”
More than 20,000 Palestinians have been killed and more than 50,000 wounded during Israel’s air and ground offensive against Gaza’s Hamas rulers, according to health officials there, while some 85 percent of the territory’s 2.3 million residents have been displaced. The war was triggered by Hamas’ deadly assault Oct. 7 on southern Israel in which militants killed about 1,200 people, most of them civilians, and took more than 240 hostages.
The Gaza war has been accompanied by a surge in violence, with some 300 Palestinians killed by Israeli fire.
The fighting has affected life across the West Bank. Since Oct. 7, access to Bethlehem and other Palestinian towns in the Israeli-occupied territory has been difficult, with long lines of motorists waiting to pass military checkpoints. The restrictions have also prevented tens of thousands of Palestinians from exiting the territory to work in Israel.
Amir Michael Giacaman opened his store, “Il Bambino,” which sells olive wood carvings and other souvenirs, for the first time since Oct. 7. There have been no tourists, and few local residents have money to spare because those who worked in Israel have been stuck at home.
“When people have extra money, they go buy food,” said his wife, Safa Giacaman. “This year, we’re telling the Christmas story. We’re celebrating Jesus, not the tree, not Santa Claus, she said, as their daughter Makaella ran around the deserted store.
The fighting in Gaza was on the minds of the small Christian community in Syria, which is coping with a civil war now in its 13th year. Christians said they were trying to find joy, despite the ongoing strife in their homeland and in Gaza.
“Where is the love? What have we done with love?” said the Rev. Elias Zahlawi, a priest in Yabroud, a city about 80 kilometers (50 miles) north of Damascus. “We’ve thrown God outside the realm of humanity and unfortunately, the church has remained silent in the face of this painful reality.”
Some tried to find inspiration in the spirit of Christmas.
Latin Patriarch Pierbattista Pizzaballa, arriving from Jerusalem for the traditional procession to the Church of the Nativity, told the sparse crowd that Christmas was a “reason to hope” despite the war and violence.
The pared-down Christmas was in keeping with the original message of the holiday and illustrated the many ways the community is coming together, said Stephanie Saldana, who is originally from San Antonio, Texas, and has lived in Jerusalem and Bethlehem for the past 15 years with her husband, a parish priest at the St. Joseph Syriac Catholic Church.
“We feel Christmas as more real than ever, because we’re waiting for the prince of peace to come. We are waiting for a miracle to stop this war,” Saldana said.


Houthis say Iran’s attack on Israel ‘legal’

Houthis say Iran’s attack on Israel ‘legal’
Updated 15 sec ago
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Houthis say Iran’s attack on Israel ‘legal’

Houthis say Iran’s attack on Israel ‘legal’
  • Iran launched a volley of drones and missiles at Israel on Saturday night in revenge for Israel’s airstrike on its Damascus consulate
  • Houthis claim that their attacks are intended to push Israel to break its stranglehold on the Palestinian Gaza Strip

AL-MUKALLA: Houthi militia said on Sunday that Iran’s large-scale missile and drone launch on Israel was “lawful” and “in accordance with international law” and pledged to continue their attacks on ships in the Red Sea.

Iran launched a volley of drones and missiles at Israel on Saturday night in revenge for Israel’s airstrike on its Damascus consulate, which killed several Revolutionary Guards leaders.

In a statement broadcast by their official news agency, the Houthi Foreign Ministry hailed Iran’s strikes, which they claimed fell within Iran’s “rights of defense,” and called on foreign powers to halt their “unlimited” political, military, financial and logistical support for Israel. 

Despite media reports that Iran-backed militias in the region, including the Houthis in Yemen, launched drones and missiles at Israel on Saturday, the Houthis have not officially claimed credit for participating in Iran’s campaign against Israel or other attacks in the Red Sea since April 10.

Since November, the Houthis have shot hundreds of ballistic missiles and drones toward Israel, as well as international commercial and navy ships in the Red Sea, Bab Al-Mandab Strait and the Gulf of Aden, preventing Israel-linked and Israel-bound vessels from passing through crucial maritime channels.

The Houthis claim that their attacks are intended to push Israel to break its stranglehold on the Palestinian Gaza Strip. 

Unlike in the early days of their Red Sea ship campaign, when the Houthis swiftly announced strikes, they have recently published notices of more attacks some days later.

At the same time, Sultan Al-Sami’i, a member of the Houthi Supreme Political Council, reiterated on Sunday the militia’s warning to target ships in the Red Sea until Israel lifts its siege on Gaza.

Speaking on the seized Galaxy Leader ship off Yemen’s western Hodediah city, the Houthi leader said that the Red Sea was “safe” for international trade and that they were only targeting Israel-linked ships and those bound for Israel.

“Except for vessels owned by the Zionist entity or those affiliated with it, we assure all nations that the Red Sea remains a secure zone for international trade, navigation and ship passage,” Al-Sami’i said.

The US and the UK, supported by allies, have responded to the Houthi attacks on ships by striking Houthi targets in Sanaa, Saada, Hodeida and other Yemeni areas under the militia’s control.

The Houthis say that the strikes have not achieved their goal of reducing their military capabilities and that they will continue to target ships. 


US will not take part in retaliatory action against Iran, White House says

US will not take part in retaliatory action against Iran, White House says
Updated 55 min 38 sec ago
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US will not take part in retaliatory action against Iran, White House says

US will not take part in retaliatory action against Iran, White House says
  • The US will continue to help Israel defend itself, but does not want war, John Kirby, the White House’s top national security spokesperson, said

JERUSALEM/DUBAI/WASHINGTON: President Joe Biden warned Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu the US will not take part in a counter-offensive against Iran if Israel decides to retaliate for a mass drone and missile attack on Israeli territory overnight, a White House official said.
The threat of open warfare erupting between the arch Middle East foes and dragging in the United States has put the region on edge, triggering calls for restraint from global powers and Arab nations to avoid further escalation.
US media reported earlier on Sunday that Biden had informed Netanyahu he would not participate in retaliatory action in a phone call overnight. The remarks were confirmed to Reuters by a White House official.
The US will continue to help Israel defend itself, but does not want war, John Kirby, the White House’s top national security spokesperson, told ABC’s “This Week” program on Sunday.
Iran launched the attack over a suspected Israeli strike on its consulate in Syria on April 1 that killed top Revolutionary Guards commanders and followed months of clashes between Israel and Iran’s regional allies, triggered by the war in Gaza.
However, the attack from more than 300 missiles and drones, mostly launched from inside Iran, caused only modest damage in Israel as most were shot down with the help of the US, Britain and Jordan.
An Air Force base in southern Israel was hit, but continued to operate as normal and a 7-year old child was seriously hurt by shrapnel. There were no other reports of serious damage.
Two senior Israeli ministers signalled on Sunday that retaliation by Israel is not imminent and it would not act alone.
“We will build a regional coalition and exact the price from Iran in the fashion and timing that is right for us,” centrist minister Benny Gantz said ahead of a war cabinet meeting.
Defense Minister Yoav Gallant also said Israel had an opportunity to form a strategic alliance against “against this grave threat by Iran which is threatening to mount nuclear explosives on these missiles, which could be an extremely grave threat,” he said. Iran denies seeking nuclear weapons.
Iranian army chief of staff Major General Mohammad Bagheri warned on television that “our response will be much larger than tonight’s military action if Israel retaliates against Iran” and told Washington its bases could also be attacked if it helped Israel retaliate.
Iranian Foreign Minister Amir Abdollahian said Tehran had informed the United States its attack on Israel would be “limited” and for self defense and that regional neighbors had also been informed of its planned strikes 72-hours in advance.
A Turkish diplomatic source said Iran had informed Turkiye in advance of what would happen.
Iran said the attack was aimed at punishing “Israeli crimes” but it now “deemed the matter concluded.”
Russia, China, France and Germany as well as Arab states Egypt, Qatar and the United Arab Emirates urged restraint and the UN Security Council was set to meet at 4 p.m. ET (2000 GMT) on Sunday.
“We will do everything to stop a further escalation,” German Chancellor Olaf Scholz said on a visit to China. “We can only warn everyone, especially Iran, against continuing this way.”
Turkiye also warned Iran it did not want further tension in the region.
Escalation
Analysts debated how far Iran’s attack was calibrated to cause genuine devastation in Israel, or to save face at home after vows of revenge while avoiding a major new war.
“I think the Iranians took into consideration the fact that Israel has a very, very strong multi-layer anti-missile system and they probably took into consideration that there will not be too many casualties,” said Sima Shine, a former senior Mossad official at the Institute for National Security Studies in Tel Aviv.
But if Iran was hoping for a muted response, like with its missile attacks on US forces in Iraq after the killing of Guards commander Qassem Soleimani in 2020, she warned “I don’t think Israel sees it this way.”
On Saturday Iran’s Revolutionary Guards seized an Israel-linked cargo ship in the Strait of Hormuz, one of the world’s most important energy shipping routes, underscoring the risks to the world economy of a wider conflict.
Some flights were suspended in countries across the region.
The war in Gaza, which Israel invaded after an attack by Iran-backed Hamas on Oct. 7, has spread to fronts with Iran-aligned groups in Lebanon, Syria, Yemen and Iraq.
Iran’s most powerful ally in the region, the Lebanese Shiite group Hezbollah fired rockets at an Israeli base overnight. Israel said it struck a Hezbollah site deep inside Lebanon on Sunday morning.
Yemen’s Houthis, who have been firing missiles at ships in the Red Sea in what they say is support for the Palestinians, called Iran’s attack legitimate.
The Oct. 7 attack in which Israel says 1,200 were killed and 253 taken hostage, along with internal discontent with the government and international pressure over the war in Gaza, form the backdrop to Netanyahu’s decisions over a response. At least 33,000 people have been killed in Gaza since Israel began its military offensive, according to authorities in the enclave.
The Israeli prime minister has for years advocated a tough military line against Iran, pushing the United States for harder action over Tehran’s nuclear program and its backing for Hezbollah, Hamas and other groups in the region.
In Israel, although there was alarm at the first direct attack from another country in more than three decades, the mood was in contrast to the trauma after the Hamas-led attack on Oct.7.
“I think we’ve been given license to respond now. I mean it was a major attack from Iran... I imagine Israel will respond and may be over quickly and get back to normal life,” said Jeremy Smith, 60.
In Iran, state television showed small gatherings in several cities celebrating the attack, but in private some Iranians were worried about Israel’s response.
“Iran gave Netanyahu a golden opportunity to attack our country. But we, the people of Iran, will bear the brunt of this conflict,” said Shima, a 29-year-old nurse, from Tehran.


Iran warns Israel against retaliation, global powers urge restraint

Iran warns Israel against retaliation, global powers urge restraint
Updated 14 April 2024
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Iran warns Israel against retaliation, global powers urge restraint

Iran warns Israel against retaliation, global powers urge restraint
  • Tehran had informed the US its attack on Israel would be ‘limited’ and for self defense

JERUSALEM/DUBAI/WASHINGTON: Iran warned Israel and the United States on Sunday of a much larger response if there is any retaliation for its mass drone and missile attack on Israeli territory overnight, as Israel said “the campaign is not over yet.”

The threat of open warfare erupting between the arch Middle East foes and dragging in the United States has put the region on edge as Washington said America did not seek conflict with Iran but would not hesitate to protect its forces and Israel.

Iran launched the attack over a suspected Israeli strike on its consulate in Syria on April 1 that killed top Revolutionary Guards commanders and followed months of clashes between Israel and Iran’s regional allies, triggered by the war in Gaza.

However, the attack from hundreds of missiles and drones, mostly launched from inside Iran, caused only modest damage in Israel as most were shot down with the help of the US, Britain and Jordan.

An Air Force base in southern Israel was hit, but continued to operate as normal and a 7-year old child was seriously hurt by shrapnel. There were no other reports of serious damage.

“We intercepted, we repelled, together we shall win,” Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said on social media ahead of a planned 1230 GMT meeting of the war cabinet to discuss a response to the attack.

Israeli Defense Minister Yoav Gallant said despite thwarting the attack, the military campaign was not over and “we must be prepared for every scenario.”

Israel’s Channel 12 TV cited an unnamed Israeli official overnight as saying there would be a “significant response” to the attack.

Iranian Foreign Minister Amir Abdollahian said Tehran had informed the United States its attack on Israel would be “limited” and for self defense.

He said Israel’s neighbors had also been informed of its planned strikes 72-hours in advance.

Global powers Russia, China, France and Germany as well as Arab states Egypt, Qatar and the United Arab Emirates urged restraint.

“We will do everything to stop a further escalation,” German Chancellor Olaf Scholz told reporters during a visit to China. “We can only warn everyone, especially Iran, against continuing this way.”

Turkiye also warned Iran it did not want further tension in the region.

The Islamic Republic’s mission to the United Nations said its actions were aimed at punishing “Israeli crimes,” but that it now “deemed the matter concluded.”

Iranian army chief of staff Major General Mohammad Bagheri warned on television that “our response will be much larger than tonight’s military action if Israel retaliates against Iran” and told Washington its bases could also be attacked if it helped Israel retaliate.

US President Joe Biden has pledged “ironclad” support for Israel against Iran, but did not announce any military response on Saturday night, saying instead he would coordinate a diplomatic response with other Western leaders.

The UN Security Council was set to meet at 4 p.m. ET (2000 GMT) on Sunday.

ESCALATION

Analysts debated how far Iran’s attack was calibrated to cause genuine devastation in Israel, or to save face at home after vows of revenge while avoiding a major new war.

“I think the Iranians took into consideration the fact that Israel has a very, very strong multi-layer anti-missile system and they probably took into consideration that there will not be too many casualties,” said Sima Shine, a former senior Mossad official at the Institute for National Security Studies in Tel Aviv.

But if Iran was hoping for a muted response, like with its missile attacks on US forces in Iraq after the killing of Guards commander Qassem Soleimani in 2020, she warned “I don’t think Israel sees it this way.”

On Saturday Iran’s Revolutionary Guards seized an Israel-linked cargo ship in the Strait of Hormuz, one of the world’s most important energy shipping routes, underscoring the risks to the world economy of a wider conflict.

Some flights were suspended in countries across the region and share prices fell in stock markets in Israel and Gulf states.

The war in Gaza, which Israel invaded after an attack by Iran-backed Hamas on Oct. 7, has spread to fronts with Iran-aligned groups in Lebanon, Syria, Yemen and Iraq.

Iran’s most powerful ally in the region, the Lebanese Shiite group Hezbollah fired rockets at an Israeli base overnight. Israel said it struck a Hezbollah site deep inside Lebanon on Sunday morning.

Yemen’s Houthis, who have been firing missiles at ships in the Red Sea in what they say is support for the Palestinians, called Iran’s attack legitimate.

The Oct. 7 attack in which 1,200 Israelis were killed and 253 taken hostage, along with internal discontent with the government and international pressure over the war in Gaza, form the backdrop to Netanyahu’s decisions over a response.

The Israeli prime minister has for years advocated a tough military line against Iran, pushing the United States for harder action over Tehran’s nuclear program and its backing for Hezbollah, Hamas and other groups in the region.

In Jerusalem on Sunday, Israelis described their fear during the attack, when sirens wailed and the night sky was shaken by blasts, but differed on how the country should respond.

“I think we’ve been given license to respond now. I mean it was a major attack from Iran... I imagine Israel will respond and may be over quickly and get back to normal life,” said Jeremy Smith, 60.

In Iran, state television showed small gatherings in several cities celebrating the attack, but in private some Iranians were worried about Israel’s response.

“Iran gave Netanyahu a golden opportunity to attack our country. But we, the people of Iran, will bear the brunt of this conflict,” said Shima, a 29-year-old nurse, from Tehran.


Hamas and Israel exchange recriminations over stalled Gaza talks

Hamas and Israel exchange recriminations over stalled Gaza talks
Updated 14 April 2024
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Hamas and Israel exchange recriminations over stalled Gaza talks

Hamas and Israel exchange recriminations over stalled Gaza talks
  • Without explicitly rejecting the draft deal, Hamas reiterated its long-standing demands for a permanent ceasefire

JERUSALEM: Israel and Hamas have accused each other of undermining negotiations for a truce in Gaza and a hostage release deal, although the talks have not collapsed.

On Saturday, while Hamas-backer Iran was preparing to launch hundreds of drones and missiles at Israel in retaliation for a deadly Damascus strike, the Palestinian militant group announced that it had delivered its response to the latest ceasefire proposal.

Without explicitly rejecting the draft deal, Hamas reiterated its long-standing demands for a permanent ceasefire and the full withdrawal of Israeli forces from the Gaza Strip, which Israeli officials have repeatedly opposed.

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has instead reiterated his determination to launch a ground invasion of Rafah, the last city in Gaza yet to face such a fate and which Israel insists is Hamas’s last major holdout.

On Saturday, Netanyahu accused Hamas of being the “only obstacle” to a deal that would free the hostages still held by Gaza militants.

“The cabinet and the security forces are united in their opposition to these unfounded demands,” he said, adding that Hamas “has refused any deal and any compromise proposal.”

On Sunday, Israel’s Mossad spy agency said in a statement released by Netanyahu’s office that Hamas had rejected the proposal, and said it “proves” that Hamas leader Yahya Sinwar “does not want a humanitarian deal and the return of the hostages.”

Sinwar was “continuing to exploit the tension with Iran,” Mossad said, and was aiming for “a general escalation in the region.”

The comments came just hours before Iran launched more than 300 drones and missiles at Israel, the vast majority of which intercepted according to Israel.

Mossad said Israel would “continue to work to achieve the objectives of the war against Hamas with all its might, and will turn every stone to bring back the hostages from Gaza.”

Despite the apparent gulf between the two sides, the talks, mediated by Egypt, the United States and Qatar, are ongoing in the Egyptian capital.

“The negotiations are not at a standstill” but the mediators will have to go back to the drawing board, said Hasni Abidi of CERMAM, a Geneva-based think tank specializing in the Mediterranean and the Arab world.

A framework being circulated in Cairo would halt fighting for six weeks and see the exchange of about 40 hostages for hundreds of Palestinian prisoners, as well as more aid deliveries into the besieged Gaza Strip.

A Hamas source told AFP that, ultimately, later stages of the ceasefire would see all hostages released, Israel withdrawing all its forces from Gaza, the lifting of the siege and the reconstruction of the territory.

However, so far every attempt to negotiate a durable ceasefire in the six-month-long war has failed.

In November, a seven-day truce enabled the exchange of 80 hostages for 240 Palestinian prisoners, as well as 25 captives freed outside of the truce mechanism.

The war broke out with Hamas’s October 7 attack on southern Israel, which resulted in the deaths of 1,170 people, mostly civilians, according to Israeli figures.

Israel’s retaliatory attack, aimed at destroying Hamas, has killed at least 33,729 people, mostly women and children, according to the health ministry in the Hamas-run territory.

Palestinian militants also took about 250 hostages, 129 of whom remain in Gaza, including 34 the Israeli army says are dead.

Israel withdrew most of its troops from the Gaza Strip on the six-month anniversary of the war, leaving only a single brigade in central Gaza, while continuing to launch air strikes and bombardments.

Netanyahu has repeated his determination to launch a ground invasion of Rafah, where around 1.5 million Gazans are sheltering from the war, despite opposition from Israel’s top ally the United States.

He also faces increasing pressure from the Israeli public and the families of the hostages, with mass weekly demonstrations in Tel Aviv and Jerusalem demanding an end to his government and the return of the captives.


Iraq PM arrives in Washington

Iraq PM arrives in Washington
Updated 14 April 2024
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Iraq PM arrives in Washington

Iraq PM arrives in Washington

Iraqi Prime Minister Muhammad Shiaa Al-Sudani arrived in Washington, DC, on Sunday embarking on an official visit at the invitation of US President Joe Biden.

Discussions during Al-Sudani's visit will encompass various aspects of the bilateral relationship between the US and Iraq, including security and defense partnership and economic ties.

This emphasis on economic cooperation comes amidst ongoing negotiations between Washington and Baghdad concerning the future of the US-led military coalition in Iraq. As both parties engage in dialogue, the visit presents a significant opportunity to bolster economic collaboration and deepen the longstanding ties between the United States and Iraq.