By JACK JEFFERY | ASSOCIATED PRESS
BETHLEHEM, West Bank (AP) — The biblical town of Bethlehem is gearing up for its second straight Christmas Eve hit by the coronavirus — with small crowds and gray, gloomy weather dampening celebrations Friday in the traditional birthplace of Jesus.
A ban on nearly all incoming air traffic by Israel — the main entry point for foreign visitors heading to the occupied West Bank — kept international tourists away for a second consecutive year. The ban is meant to slow the spread of the highly contagious omicron variant, which has shaken Christmas celebrations around the world.
Instead, local authorities were counting on the Holy Land’s small Christian community to lift spirits.
Bethlehem’s mayor, Anton Salman, said the town was optimistic that 2021 would be better than last year’s Christmas, when even local residents stayed home due to lockdown restrictions. Bethlehem planned a return of its traditional marching band parades and street celebrations.
“Last year, our festival was virtual, but this year it will be face to face with popular participation,” Salman said.
Police erected barricades early Friday as scout bands marched through Manger Square banging drums and holding flags ahead of the expected arrival from Jerusalem of Latin Patriarch Pierbattista Pizzaballa, the top Roman Catholic clergyman in the Holy Land.
Pizzaballa was scheduled to celebrate Midnight Mass at the nearby Church of the Nativity — which houses the grotto where Christians believe Jesus was born.
By midday, several hundred people, nearly all of them Palestinians, milled about behind the barricades to celebrate the occasion.
Before the pandemic, Bethlehem would host thousands of Christian pilgrims from around the world, bringing a strong dose of holiday spirit to the town and a huge jolt to the local economy. The loss of international tourism, the lifeblood of Bethlehem’s economy, has hit hotels, restaurants and gift shops especially hard.
“Under normal conditions for this time of year, I usually have a 20-meter queue outside,” said Adil Abu Nayaf, owner of an empty food stall in Manger Square.
Those who attended tried to make the best of a difficult situation. The Holy Land is home to over 200,000 Christians, a small but tight-knit community that makes up an estimated 1% to 2% of the population in Israel and the occupied West Bank. There are also thousands of foreign laborers and African migrants, as well as diplomats and journalists.
Billy Stuart, an employee at the British Consulate in Jerusalem, said his experience in Bethlehem was uplifting, despite the smaller-than-hoped-for crowds.
“The parade is amazing, and I did not realize there were so many Palestinian bag pipers,” he said.