No Christmas in Bethlehem

No Christmas in Bethlehem
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The proof that Belén lives off tourism – and that there are optimists in the Holy Land – is the existence of El Rancho, “Mexican food and seafood”, closed tight, like most of the 138 restaurants and 30 hotels in the place. where Christ was born.

“The war is an economic catastrophe for Bethlehem,” summarizes Samir Qumsieh, a living force in the city of 30,000 inhabitants and a member of a prominent Christian Palestinian family.

“Public aid to alleviate the lack of tourists? Ha! “We are governed by a mafia,” laments a money changer.

Elaborating on what Raphael sings, the road that leads to Bethlehem has become unfriendly: Bethlehem is in the West Bank and its access is controlled by Israel.

-To Bethlehem by taxi? He won't be able to and they will nail him. If he has 232 in front of him and it costs 4 shekels!

At the Damascus Gate in Jerusalem they always give good advice to foreigners.

The driver of the 232 is friendly and sells tickets – a rarity. The passage, very feminine, Palestinians who work in Jerusalem, ten kilometers from Bethlehem, most with a scarf covering their hair. Twenty minutes later, the vehicle ends the route in front of some concrete blocks and a 50-meter corridor that overlooks the West Bank. No soldier asks for documents; the cameras, neither.

On the other side, yellow taxis, unoccupied, whose drivers prefer the will to the taximeter because “there is no work” and they know everything.

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Bethlehem lives – subsists – from the Church of the Nativity, shared by Orthodox and Catholics. “They jointly sign some peace petition but they can't even see each other,” summarizes a source who knows the Holy Land well and prefers anonymity.

The Church of the Nativity is in the shiny Manger Square, rehabilitated in a grand style by the French Republic, whose flag appears on a protest banner, hanging on the fence of Casa Nova Hospedaje Franciscano. On a map of Palestine, a rain of bombs, seven, each with a little flag and “Genocide” in large letters.

There are no visitors inside the temple or in the grotto where Jesus was born, two thousand years ago, all filtered light and silence because even the Franciscan who sits in the grotto prefers to pray and remain silent.

“If I had arrived in Bethlehem without a reservation the week before October 7, I would have had to ask my cousins, owners of two hotels, for a room as a great favor,” summarizes Samir Qumsieh at the headquarters of his television network, Nativity TV. , some of his many businesses, some altruistic.

“Bethlehem lives on 90% of tourism, the rest is olive oil. The campaign was going very well, but now all the hotels have closed. There is no possibility that they will open for Christmas without foreigners or authorities, except for masses for Christians here,” adds Mr. Samir, educated and well-traveled, who lived deported for 22 years in Kuwait, home to many Palestinians until Arafat had the idea. of supporting Saddam Hussein, the Iraqi invader, in 1990.

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There is everything in the square and nothing. The City Hall, an open souvenir shop whose owner is not there to make statements, a pompous Center for Peace – bookstore, library, auditorium, etc., etc. –, the Omar mosque and the postal service office, without officials at the windows. An employee appears. “Since the 7th there have been no tourists. They came to send postcards and letters about the Bethlehem postmark and to buy stamps. More than 100 tourists a day for sure,” she evokes. A portrait of Arafat hangs in the room, when the Palestinian National Authority seemed like the future.

–Public aid to alleviate the lack of tourists? Ha! We are governed by a MAFIA

Mohamed, a name he invented, has a currency exchange house on the most commercial street, designed for tourists and not very crowded. And he spells “mafia” out loud again.

“We Christians are going to disappear from Bethlehem in a few years. It is the demographic, lower than that of Jews and Muslims. We are a sandwich, between two superior forces,” adds Mr. Samir, who was born a year after the Nakba, the traumatic military defeat of 1948 at the hands of the newborn State of Israel. “I have not had a single day of peace in my mind,” he summarizes with what we call Christian resignation.

The owner of the Shephered hotel and two other accommodations in Bethlehem, Samir Abu Aita, is weak. “We had to lay off all 70 employees and close. They got paid in October. The season was excellent. Reopen? As long as there is war… Goodbye and pray for us.” Bethlehem without Christmas, Christmas without Bethlehem.

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A man walks along a building whose facade is covered with Stars of David painted during the night, in the Alesia district of Paris, on October 31, 2023. (Photo by Geoffroy VAN DER HASSELT / AFP)

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