Joyless Christmas looms in Bethlehem

City's muted celebration reflects dark mood amid Arab-Israeli violence

November 27, 2001|By Peter Hermann | Peter Hermann,SUN FOREIGN STAFF

BETHLEHEM, West Bank - Christmas lights will be fewer and dimmer. Carolers will be local schoolchildren, not professionals from abroad. Pictures of Palestinian gunmen will replace traditional holiday decorations.

Bethlehem Mayor Hanna J. Nasser has not canceled Christmas, but it will have "a very low profile," he said yesterday, to reflect violence last month between Palestinians and the Israeli army that left 22 people dead.

"Christmas is joy and love, and all of that is missing," said Nasser. "The mood to celebrate is not there. People feel depressed."

Those sentiments seemed to be echoed by out-of-work laborers on the street, a restaurant owner sitting in his empty dining room and in the remarks of the chancellor of the Latin patriarch of Jerusalem.

"It is not the time to dance and to make merry when people are in mourning," said Father Raed A. Abusahlia. "Bethlehem should be a city of life, not a city of destruction under occupation and siege."

Unless the mood changes quickly, this will be the second straight year that Israeli-Palestinian violence has prevented Christmas from truly being Christmas in the city where tradition says Jesus was born.

"It's not the best of times, but people need to be entertained a little bit," said Father Ibrahim Faltas, who is in charge of Nativity celebrations and wants the city to sponsor more festivities. "It would help send a message around the world: Remember Bethlehem."

It wasn't always this difficult. Bethlehem flourished when it came under Palestinian rule, three days before Christmas 1996.

Hope for peace flourished in the mid-1990s, and Palestinian Bethlehem quickly took advantage of its newfound release from Israeli rule. The city poured $200 million into renovations for carnival-like festivities, including a fireworks display, leading up to midnight Mass for the Millennium celebration at the close of 1999.

Attendance fell short of expectations, but it was a start. In March 2000, Pope John Paul II paid a visit, giving the city another boost. But by October, the rebuilding was over. The Palestinian uprising began with unprecedented violence and continues 14 months later.

In Bethlehem, construction ground to a halt. Hotels and buildings stand half-finished, their gaping facades monuments to a failed peace. Billboards promising splendor and riches are constant reminders of what were supposed to be better times.

Tourists simply do not come. Most shops are closed. Unemployment is said to be nearly 70 percent. Last month, conditions worsened, as Israeli tanks and troops waged pitched battles with Palestinian gunmen for 10 days.

"There is no happiness," said Peter Zerenoa, 17, who stopped by the Church of the Nativity to pray yesterday. He is the youngest of five children, none of whom has permanent work. His father worked as a tailor in Jerusalem but lost his job when the fighting started and West Bank residents were banned from entering Israel.

"I came here to pray for peace and for life," he said, "so we can have our jobs back and our freedom."

Across Manger Square is St. George's Restaurant, its sprawling dining room empty. Khalil Julius, 42, said he had been closed for six months, but reopened recently to clean. Maybe, he said, a visitor will come for Christmas. Eighteen months ago, he employed 15 people. He has two left, and they work for half-salary.

He needs tourists to survive.

"If it's just a religious celebration, nobody will come here," Julius said.

Nasser, the mayor, said that even if he wanted to, he couldn't turn on many Christmas lights. The main streets from Jerusalem into Bethlehem remain without power weeks after Israeli troops withdrew. Not to mention that the municipality is virtually bankrupt.

What kind of Christmas joy would there be, the mayor asked, for people to drive into Bethlehem and pass by families living in tents, having been forced from homes damaged by gunfire. The posters of dead residents, many shown holding automatic rifles, will remain as tributes to the battle, he said.

The violence has returned after weeks of quiet. On Sunday, Israeli soldiers shot and killed a 13-year- old boy during clashes near Rachel's Tomb, a frequent flash point at the northern entrance to the city. Israeli officials said the boy was shot as he threw an explosive device.

Yesterday, Palestinian militants hiding in the neighboring town of Beit Jala resumed shooting at the Jerusalem suburb of Gilo, prompting the Israeli army to return fire. The exchanges echoed through Bethlehem on a damp, rainy day.

Nasser said residents are free to go through the motions of Christmas. There will be a midnight Mass, singing and a decorated tree. But the spirit of Christmas cannot be forced, the mayor said.

"You can't plant joy in people's hearts when it is not there."

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