BETHLEHEM: Bethlehem’s Manger Square celebrated on Friday (24th.

The city where Christians believe Jesus was born is usually a focal point of the holidays, with thousands populating the streets and hotels fill.

But Israel, which controls all entrances to Bethlehem in the occupied West Bank, closed its borders to foreigners in an attempt to contain infections from the Omicron strain of the coronavirus.

“It’s very strange,” said Kristel Elayyan , a Dutch woman who was married to a Palestinian who had come to Bethlehem from Jerusalem.

“Before (the pandemic) a lot of people from different countries came to celebrate Christmas and now you know everyone who is here, probably not a tourist. “

Last year, Bethlehem curtailed the celebrations due to the pandemic, with virtual tree lighting and only a handful of visiting Boy Scout troops.

This year the celebrations are It’s certainly livelier – but still a fraction of their usual size.

“But because this is the second year and we don’t know what’s going to happen in the future, it’s a great loss for the people here.”

The optimistic Palestinian Tourism Minister Rula Maayah said it was “thanks to the vaccines” that Bethlehem celebrated again.

On average, Bethlehem welcomed three million visitors a year before the pandemic, with 10,000 people coming to the hotels at Christmas alone City, about half from overseas.

The community said it has been working this year to target local visitors from Palestinian communities across the Holy Land.

Some hotels were busy, but about a quarter of those available Rooms across the city were closed because of the pandemic, said Elias Arja, chairman of the Palestinian Hotel Association.

Several shops kept their doors closed on Friday, despite Holy evening was the most important day of the year for Bethlehem.

In the Church of the Nativity, visitors were even able to meditate almost alone in the grotto where Jesus is said to be born.

“Of course there is a selfish part in which there is means: ‘Oh, I see this place so empty’, but on the other hand you feel for the shops, all the money they lose. “

Just a few steps from the basilica are the pictures of the Popes John Paul II and Francis open the front of a shop selling carved olive wood figurines and Christmas cribs.

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”.

“Only the boy scouts convey a bit of a holiday feeling,” he said as troops of uniformed boy scouts marched by and on drums and trumpets and bagpipes Christmas carols rang out.

Tabash said he kept his business alive during the pandemic through exports as no customers came in person to shop. He compared the pandemic to two previous Palestinian uprisings or intifadas.

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

“It’s not a normal year, we are afraid of the worst, we are still afraid of Covid,” she told AFP.

“When there is war, we know the enemy and we know who we’re fighting against. But at Covid it’s a very small enemy that we don’t see, so it’s even worse. “

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