Gaza Conflict: Sombre Bethlehem marks Christmas amid Israel's offensive against Hamas

Gaza Conflict: Sombre Bethlehem marks Christmas amid Israel's offensive against Hamas

Gaza Conflict: Sombre Bethlehem marks Christmas amid Israel's offensive against Hamas

The traditional joyous celebrations at the location where they believe Jesus Christ was born were replaced on Saturday by a solemn Christmas vigil in Bethlehem, attended by Palestinian Christians. The event featured prayers for peace in Gaza and hymns lighted by candles.

Most of the time, Bethlehem rejoices in its pivotal role in the Christian account of Jesus’ life. There, in a stable, because the inn could not accommodate his parents, he was laid to rest in the most lowly of all beds—an animal’s manger.

Two millennia later, pilgrims swarm to Bethlehem’s Church of the Nativity, built in the Byzantine era, where the stable is said to have stood. On most Christmases, the church is decorated with festive lights and trees in Manger Square.

However, the majority-Palestinian residents of Bethlehem in the Occupied West Bank are also in mourning, as health officials in the Hamas-run enclave report that Israel’s operation in Gaza has killed over 20,000 Palestinians.

Because of the tragedy occurring just 50 kilometres (30 miles) away, Bethlehem opted not to have their traditional huge tree as the focal point of their Christmas celebrations this year.

Additionally, Bethlehem churches this year set the models amid the normal nativity scene—as Christians refer to the customary display of miniatures symbolising the holy family—instead of rubble and barbed wire in solidarity with the people of Gaza.

According to Protecting Holy Land Christians, a campaign run by the Heads of Churches in Jerusalem, Christians make up about 2% of the population in both Israel and the Occupied Palestinian territories, with a lower percentage in Gaza.

In the meantime, the majority of anticipated foreign visitors intending to spend Christmas in Bethlehem have been turned away by the conflict, which was sparked by a Hamas offensive on Israeli communities on October 7 that Israel claims killed 1,200 people, largely civilians.

Few people flocked to the usually bustling streets and squares to witness the scaled-back show as church officials gathered at Bethlehem in early December to celebrate the beginning of Advent, as Christians refer to the weeks leading up to Christmas.

(With agency inputs)