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Israelis flood Nazareth for Christmas celebrations, while Bethlehem subdued

Tens of thousands visit northern town for festive events; in the West Bank, meanwhile, locals who depend on tourism for their livelihood say health crisis ‘worse than war’

  • Visitors walk in Manger Square on Christmas eve outside the Church of the Nativity, revered as the site of Jesus Christ's birth, in the biblical city of Bethlehem in the West Bank on December 24, 2021. (Abbas Momani/AFP)
    Visitors walk in Manger Square on Christmas eve outside the Church of the Nativity, revered as the site of Jesus Christ's birth, in the biblical city of Bethlehem in the West Bank on December 24, 2021. (Abbas Momani/AFP)
  • People gather at night around the giant Christmas tree outside the Greek Orthodox Church of the Annunciation in Israel's northern city of Nazareth on December 18, 2021 (Ahmad Gharabli/AFP)
    People gather at night around the giant Christmas tree outside the Greek Orthodox Church of the Annunciation in Israel's northern city of Nazareth on December 18, 2021 (Ahmad Gharabli/AFP)
  • People gather outside the Church of the Nativity, revered as the site of Jesus Christ's birth, during Christmas celebrations in the biblical city of Bethlehem in the West Bank, on December 24, 2021. (Abbas Momani/AFP)
    People gather outside the Church of the Nativity, revered as the site of Jesus Christ's birth, during Christmas celebrations in the biblical city of Bethlehem in the West Bank, on December 24, 2021. (Abbas Momani/AFP)
  • Vendors sell balloons to visitors in Manger Square on Christmas eve outside the Church of the Nativity, revered as the site of Jesus Christ's birth, in the biblical city of Bethlehem in the West Bank on December 24, 2021. (ABBAS MOMANI / AFP)
    Vendors sell balloons to visitors in Manger Square on Christmas eve outside the Church of the Nativity, revered as the site of Jesus Christ's birth, in the biblical city of Bethlehem in the West Bank on December 24, 2021. (ABBAS MOMANI / AFP)
  • Pierbattista Pizzaballa (C), the Latin Patriarch of Jerusalem, prays at the Church of Nativity during Christmas celebrations in Bethlehem in the West Bank on December 24, 2021. (ABBAS MOMANI / AFP)
    Pierbattista Pizzaballa (C), the Latin Patriarch of Jerusalem, prays at the Church of Nativity during Christmas celebrations in Bethlehem in the West Bank on December 24, 2021. (ABBAS MOMANI / AFP)

Tens of thousands of people visited Nazareth on Friday for the traditional Christmas procession despite the lack of international tourists, a welcome change for residents after last year’s cancellation of major events due to the pandemic.

The atmosphere in the city where Christians believe Jesus lived was cheery as the parade moved from the Temple of Mary along Paul VI Street, with visitors bustling along between shops and stalls offering food and holiday trinkets.

The event was lively despite fears of rising infections as a result of the Omicron variant of coronavirus.

With Israel closed to tourists and its citizens restricted from traveling abroad, the mainly Arab city of Nazareth, normally a magnet for Christian pilgrims, has been thronged with Jewish visitors.

Livnat Kizner, from central Israel, told Ynet that visiting the city was a good substitute for a trip abroad. “It’s very reminiscent of Europe, in the sounds, the smells, the experience. You can definitely have fun in Israel in such places and not fly,” she said.

Another visitor identified only as Tal told Walla: “When you can’t fly abroad, Nazareth was a good alternative. It was really joyous seeing the tens of thousands of revelers enjoying the colors and tastes of the city.”

Meanwhile, in Bethlehem’s Manger Square, visitors in Santa hats and scouts beating drums marked Christmas Eve, but fewer people attended as coronavirus fears overshadowed celebrations for a second year.

The city where Jesus is said to have been born is usually a focal point of the holiday, with thousands packing the streets and filling the hotels.

But Israel, through which tourists travel to Bethlehem in the West Bank, barred its borders to foreigners in an effort to rein in infections from the Omicron strain of the coronavirus.

“It’s very strange,” said Kristel Elayyan, a Dutchwoman married to a Palestinian, who came to Bethlehem from Jerusalem.

“Before [the pandemic], you had a bunch of people coming in from different countries to celebrate Christmas, and now you know that everybody who is here is probably not a tourist.”

Last year, Bethlehem curtailed the celebration sharply because of the pandemic, with a virtual tree lighting and just a handful of visiting scout troops.

Palestinian scouts parade outside the Church of the Nativity, revered as the site of Jesus Christ’s birth, with security forces standing guard during Christmas celebrations in the biblical city of Bethlehem in the West Bank, on December 24, 2021. (ABBAS MOMANI / AFP)

This year, the celebrations are certainly more vibrant — but still just a fraction of their usual size.

“If it’s one year, it’s an interesting experience,” Elayyan added of the pandemic. “But because this is the second year and we don’t know what is going to come in the future, it’s a huge loss for the people here.”

An upbeat Palestinian tourism minister Rula Maayah said it is “thanks to the vaccines” that Bethlehem is celebrating again.

Palestinian women, wearing traditional clothing, pose for a picture outside the Church of the Nativity, revered as the site of Jesus Christ’s birth, during Christmas celebrations in the biblical city of Bethlehem in the West Bank, on December 24, 2021. (ABBAS MOMANI / AFP)

On average, Bethlehem welcomed three million visitors a year before the pandemic, with Christmas alone drawing 10,000 people to the city’s hotels, around half from abroad.

The municipality said it worked this year to appeal to local visitors from Palestinian communities across the Holy Land. Some hotels were busy, but about a quarter of available rooms citywide were shuttered because of the pandemic, said Elias Arja, head of the Palestinian Hotel Association.

Lights illuminate the Church of the Nativity, revered as the site of Jesus Christ’s birth, on Christmas eve in the biblical city of Bethlehem in the West Bank on December 24, 2021. (ABBAS MOMANI / AFP)

Several businesses kept their doors shut on Friday, despite Christmas Eve being the most important day of the year for Bethlehem.

Inside the Church of the Nativity, visitors were even able to meditate nearly alone at the grotto where Jesus is said to have been born.

“Surreal,” observed Hudson Harder, a 21-year-old American student at Hebrew University in Jerusalem.

“Of course there is a selfish part where it’s like, ‘Oh, I get to see this place so empty,’ but on the other hand you feel for the shops, all the money they are losing.”

‘Worse than war’

Steps away from the basilica, the images of Popes John Paul II and Francis cover the front of a shop selling carved olive wood figures and nativity scenes.

Archbishop Pierbattista Pizzaballa (R), Latin Patriarch of Jerusalem, greets a Palestinian man in the biblical city of Bethlehem in the West Bank on December 24, 2021, ahead of Christmas celebrations. (AHMAD GHARABLI / AFP)

Owner Victor Epiphane Tabash said it was his 57th Christmas behind the counter. For him, as for many shopkeepers around Manger Square, “there is nothing to say about Christmas.

Members of the scouting movement band perform in a parade outside the Church of the Nativity during Christmas celebrations in the biblical city of Bethlehem in the West Bank on Christmas eve on December 24, 2021. (JAAFAR ASHTIYEH / AFP)

“Only the scouts give a bit of the holiday feeling,” he said, as troops of uniformed scouts marched past, blasting out Christmas carols on drums, trumpets and bagpipes.

Tabash said he kept his business alive during the pandemic by exporting, because no customers came to buy in person. He compared the pandemic to two previous Palestinian uprisings, or intifadas.

“We have lived through the intifadas, wars. But the coronavirus is worse,” he said.

Outside, Maram Saeed, a Palestinian woman from Jerusalem, took a selfie with her husband and two children in front of a towering Christmas tree decorated with shining red and gold spheres.

Saeed said it was a time of joy after many days of depression.

“It’s not like a usual year, we have the fear of the worst, we still fear COVID,” she told AFP.

“When there is war, we know the enemy, and we know who we are fighting. But with COVID, it’s a very tiny enemy that we don’t see, so it’s worse.”

Times of Israel staff contributed to this report.

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