Christmas returns to Bethlehem after two years of COVID curbs

Tourists flock to the occupied West Bank city to celebrate Christmas after pandemic restrictions were lifted.

With a giant evergreen tree, colourful balloons in the streets and selfies in the Church of the Nativity, Christmas tourism returned to the occupied West Bank city of Bethlehem after two years of COVID-related restrictions.

Revered in the Christian tradition as the birthplace of Christ, the town of Bethlehem welcomes thousands of pilgrims and tourists for Christmas every year, a windfall that dried up during the past two years due to the pandemic and travel restrictions.

Now with restrictions lifted in the occupied Palestinian territories and Israel, where the closest international airport with access to Bethlehem is located, the southern West Bank town has taken on a festive air.

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Scouts marched with bagpipes as thousands of onlookers lining the streets held balloons and cotton candy.

The Latin Patriarch of Jerusalem, Pierbattista Pizzaballa, greeted worshippers upon his arrival to the town, in advance of leading the annual Christmas Eve procession at the Church of the Nativity.

People gather at the Church of Nativity in Bethlehem, in the Israeli-occupied West Bank [Mussa Issa Qawasma/Reuters]

“Christmas is the town’s celebration, and we put in a lot of time and effort to prepare for it,” Bethlehem mayor Hanna Hanania told the AFP news agency.

“We wanted to have international participation, and organised children’s songs and shows with singers from France, South Africa and Malta,” he added.

Al Jazeera’s Nida Ibrahim, reporting from Bethlehem, said Palestinians were looking forward to a Christmas season without any COVID-19 restrictions.

However, it was also a year that was “marred with losses”, Ibrahim added.

“There has been a lot of tension here in the occupied West Bank – more than 230 Palestinians were killed by Israeli forces,” she said, referring to those who were killed across the West Bank and in the besieged Gaza Strip.

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