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Amid pandemic, Christmas tree-lighting in Bethlehem is a muted, virtual event

At ceremony, PA premier vows to combat Israeli settlement-building, reconcile with rival Hamas

  • A picture taken on December 5, 2020, shows the Christmas tree after a lighting ceremony in the biblical city of Bethlehem in the West Bank, closed to the public due to the COVID-19 coronavirus pandemic (Emmanuel DUNAND / AFP)
    A picture taken on December 5, 2020, shows the Christmas tree after a lighting ceremony in the biblical city of Bethlehem in the West Bank, closed to the public due to the COVID-19 coronavirus pandemic (Emmanuel DUNAND / AFP)
  • Palestinian Christians attend the lighting of a Christmas tree outside the Church of the Nativity, traditionally believed by Christians to be the birthplace of Jesus Christ in the West Bank city of Bethlehem, Saturday, Dec. 5, 2020. (AP Photo/Majdi Mohammed)
    Palestinian Christians attend the lighting of a Christmas tree outside the Church of the Nativity, traditionally believed by Christians to be the birthplace of Jesus Christ in the West Bank city of Bethlehem, Saturday, Dec. 5, 2020. (AP Photo/Majdi Mohammed)
  • Crosses are lit on the Church of the Nativity, traditionally believed by Christians to be the birthplace of Jesus Christ, during the Christmas tree lightning ceremony in the West Bank city of Bethlehem, Saturday, Dec. 5, 2020. (AP Photo/Majdi Mohammed)
    Crosses are lit on the Church of the Nativity, traditionally believed by Christians to be the birthplace of Jesus Christ, during the Christmas tree lightning ceremony in the West Bank city of Bethlehem, Saturday, Dec. 5, 2020. (AP Photo/Majdi Mohammed)
  • Christian worshipper prays in the Church of the Nativity, traditionally believed to be the birthplace of Jesus Christ, in the West Bank city of Bethlehem, Monday, Nov. 23, 2020.  (AP Photo/Majdi Mohammed)
    Christian worshipper prays in the Church of the Nativity, traditionally believed to be the birthplace of Jesus Christ, in the West Bank city of Bethlehem, Monday, Nov. 23, 2020. (AP Photo/Majdi Mohammed)
  • A man walks outside the Church of the Nativity, traditionally believed to be the birthplace of Jesus Christ, in the West Bank City of Bethlehem, Monday, Nov. 23, 2020.  (AP Photo/Majdi Mohammed)
    A man walks outside the Church of the Nativity, traditionally believed to be the birthplace of Jesus Christ, in the West Bank City of Bethlehem, Monday, Nov. 23, 2020. (AP Photo/Majdi Mohammed)
  • A Palestinian vendor stands in front of his shop near the Church of the Nativity, traditionally believed to be the birthplace of Jesus Christ, in the West Bank City of Bethlehem, Monday, Nov. 23, 2020. (AP Photo/Majdi Mohammed)
    A Palestinian vendor stands in front of his shop near the Church of the Nativity, traditionally believed to be the birthplace of Jesus Christ, in the West Bank City of Bethlehem, Monday, Nov. 23, 2020. (AP Photo/Majdi Mohammed)
  • Christmas tree is lit outside the Church of the Nativity, traditionally believed by Christians to be the birthplace of Jesus Christ in the West Bank city of Bethlehem, Saturday, Dec. 5, 2020. (AP Photo/Majdi Mohammed)
    Christmas tree is lit outside the Church of the Nativity, traditionally believed by Christians to be the birthplace of Jesus Christ in the West Bank city of Bethlehem, Saturday, Dec. 5, 2020. (AP Photo/Majdi Mohammed)

BETHLEHEM — Only a few dozen people attended the lighting of the Christmas tree in the biblical city of Bethlehem on Saturday night, as coronavirus restrictions scaled back the annual event that is normally attended by thousands.

A small group of residents and religious leaders participated in the tree-lighting ceremony at Manger Square near the Church of the Nativity, where Christians believe Jesus was born. Others watched it virtually due to restrictions prompted by the virus pandemic.

Some officials, including Palestinian Authority Prime Minister Mohammad Shtayyeh, attended in person and addressed event participants watching online.

Shtayyeh said the Palestinian leadership is receiving the new year with determination to “confronting the (Israeli) occupation more firmly” and ending the internal political division with the rival Hamas terror group. He said the Palestinians would “defeat the settlement”-building in the West Bank despite the pandemic.

Bethlehem Mayor Anton Salman said Christmas is being observed this year in ways like no time before.

“We resorted to modern technology and to the virtual world to celebrate the lighting of the Christmas tree, wishing hope and optimism would flutter upon Palestine and the world,” Salman said.

Thousands of pilgrims and tourists typically visit Bethlehem, fill hotels and dine at restaurants during the Christmas season, bringing the area a much-needed injection of cash.

This picture taken on December 5, 2020 shows a view of the scene before the lighting of the Christmas tree in the biblical city of Bethlehem in the West Bank, closed to the public due to the COVID-19 coronavirus pandemic. (EMMANUEL DUNAND / AFP)
This picture taken on December 5, 2020 shows a view of the lighting of the Christmas tree in the biblical city of Bethlehem in the West Bank, closed to the public due to the COVID-19 coronavirus pandemic. (EMMANUEL DUNAND / AFP)
A picture taken on December 5, 2020, shows the Christmas tree after a lighting ceremony in the biblical city of Bethlehem in the West Bank, closed to the public due to the COVID-19 coronavirus pandemic (Emmanuel DUNAND / AFP)
Christians take photos inside the Grotto of the Church of the Nativity, traditionally believed to be the birthplace of Jesus Christ, in the West Bank city of Bethlehem, Monday, Nov. 23, 2020. (AP Photo/Majdi Mohammed)
Christmas tree is lit outside the Church of the Nativity, traditionally believed by Christians to be the birthplace of Jesus Christ in the West Bank city of Bethlehem, Saturday, Dec. 5, 2020. (AP Photo/Majdi Mohammed)
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