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World News

'Worst Christmas ever' in birthplace of Jesus as impact of war empties Bethlehem

by Reuters Journalist

Bethlehem is normally at its busiest at Christmas but this year war has scared away tourists and pilgrims from the Palestinian town in the Israeli-occupied West Bank, leaving hotels, restaurants and souvenir shops deserted.

With global headlines dominated since Oct. 7 by news of the Hamas attacks in southern Israel, followed by Israel's military assault on Gaza and a rise in violence in the West Bank, business owners in Bethlehem said no one was coming.

"We have no guests. Not one," said Joey Canavati, owner of the Alexander Hotel, whose family has lived and worked in Bethlehem for four generations.

"This is the worst Christmas ever. Bethlehem is shut down for Christmas. No Christmas tree, no joy, no Christmas spirit," he said.

Located just south of Jerusalem, Bethlehem is heavily reliant for income and jobs on visitors from all over the world who come to see the Church of the Nativity, believed by Christians to stand on the site where Jesus was born.

Canavati said that before Oct. 7, his hotel was fully booked for Christmas, to the point that he was looking for rooms elsewhere in the town to help out people he could not fit in.

Since the war started, everyone cancelled, including bookings for next year. "All we get on the email is cancellation after cancellation after cancellation," said Canavati.

He took Reuters TV on a tour of the hotel, opening doors to empty rooms and showing the silent dining room.

"We had at least 120 people having dinner here every night and it was packed. The noise, the people. Empty. No Christmas breakfast, no Christmas dinner, no Christmas buffet," he said.


Since the 1967 war between Israel and neighbouring Arab countries, Israel has occupied the West Bank, which Palestinians want as the core of a future independent state.

Israel has built Jewish settlements, deemed illegal by most countries, across the territory. Israel disputes this, citing historical and biblical ties to the land. Several of its ministers live in settlements and favour their expansion.

Since Oct. 7, the West Bank has experienced a rise in attacks by Jewish settlers on Palestinians, which were already at a 15-year high this year before the Hamas attack.

Bethlehem's Manger Square, a large paved space in front of the Church of the Nativity that usually serves as a focal point for Christmas celebrations, was quiet and almost empty, as were nearby streets where most souvenir shops were shuttered.

Rony Tabash, who sells crucifixes, statuettes of the Virgin Mary and other religious trinkets in his family's store, was tidying shelves and merchandise to pass the time.

"We are almost two months without any pilgrim, any tourist," he said, adding that he was keeping the store open as a way to stave off hopelessness.

"We want to feel that everything will be back, like to normal life," he said.

Ala'a Salameh, owner of falafel restaurant Afteem, said his business was operating at 10% or 15% of capacity, catering for local Palestinian families rather than the usual influx of foreign visitors.

He said he was keeping the restaurant open because his staff needed the work.

"I have workers, so from where I can give them money to take and to feed their families, their kids?" he said.

"We are praying for peace. For peace. You know, Bethlehem is the city where peace was born, so it should be the messenger for peace to be spread all over the world."

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