Bethlehem's hopes of Christmas pilgrims dashed by Omicron

There is no aid package to support Palestinians in Bethlehem hit hard by the pandemic

Children pass closed shops in Manger Square, Bethlehem, December 15, 2021. AFP

The Christmas tree shines brightly over the square in Bethlehem, but all hopes of pilgrims reaching the holy city this December have been dashed by the Omicron coronavirus variant.

“In the past few weeks we saw a few tourists coming from outside, so we started cleaning and opening up,” said Mary Giacaman, whose family owns the Holy Lands Arts Museum shop.

“But now it’s back to closure,” she said from their souvenir shop on Manger Square.

Israel controls all borders of the occupied West Bank, where Bethlehem lies, so the country’s renewed ban on tourists means there will be no foreign visitors this Christmas.

For the first time during the pandemic, outsiders were welcomed back in November and started making their way to the holy land.

“Only a few, but at least you see they are encouraged to come, so we hoped that it would be better,” said Ms Giacaman, 58, whose family dusted off their wares.

But by the end of November the new coronavirus variant was discovered, prompting Israel to close the borders to tourism again. The first Omicron cases in the West Bank were announced on Thursday, weeks after such infections were detected in Israel.

In central Bethlehem, souvenir shops are filled with Christmas decorations, crosses and figurines carved out of olive wood, but no customers.

More than 130,000 tourists visited Bethlehem in December 2019, according to the municipality. Visitors flocked to the city by the busload.

“Bethlehem was visited by the biggest number of tourists for years,” said Carmen Ghattis, the municipality’s head of public relations.

“It was a huge boost to the economy, and suddenly — poof — nothing,” she said.

Across the city square is the Church of the Nativity, where Christians believe Jesus was born.

Now just a handful of people walk around the famous church, where a strong smell of incense permeates the face masks.

Tour guides wait for visitors from elsewhere in the Palestinian territories or Israel, but they know there will be no crowds.

“We have no income at all now and we don’t have any aid from the government,” said Saeed Al Tamara, 38, a guide.

The Palestinian Authority, which has limited rule in the West Bank, has been unable to launch the kind of support packages implemented by other governments during the pandemic.

While Israel announced plans this month to help those in the tourism sector who have been hit by the border restrictions, such aid is not extended to Palestinians in the West Bank.

“All the tour guides and the hotels, the people who are dependent on tourism, are broken now,” Mr Tamara said.

When the pandemic struck last year, some of his former clients in Europe and North America sent him money.

“All of them were so nice and that’s really how I managed my situation,” he said, although such donations have long since run out.

Some Bethlehem residents have found other jobs locally, while others have obtained permits to work in Israel.

The city had prepared for a return to festive celebrations this year, after events were curtailed in 2020.

Choirs were invited from abroad to sing at the Christmas tree lighting on December 4, but the trip was scrapped when the border rules were imposed a few days before.

Decorations line the city’s historic Star Street for a festive market, but the limited number of local visitors cannot make up for the absence of pilgrims.

Ms Ghattis, in her office overlooking Manger Square, described the ban on foreign arrivals as necessary.

“But it was very unfair, especially for this period. Because our economy depends on tourism,” she said.

The ban on visitors from abroad has already been extended twice, until December 29, leaving little room for optimism in Bethlehem.

“We don’t know what to expect,” said Ms Giacaman, who had a message for potential pilgrims.

“The people here are very friendly, and we hope they will come and visit.”

Updated: December 19th 2021, 4:20 AM