The Latin Patriarch of Jerusalem Fouad Twal leads a Christmas Midnight Mass at the Church of the Nativity in Bethlehem. Fadi Arouri / AP Photo
The Latin Patriarch of Jerusalem Fouad Twal leads a Christmas Midnight Mass at the Church of the Nativity in Bethlehem. Fadi Arouri / AP Photo

Bethlehem, the birthplace of Christmas



Bethlehem, the birthplace of Jesus Christ, is perched atop a mountain that affords it spectacular views of the West Bank and Dead Sea. Just a couple of kilometres from Jerusalem, Bethlehem is essentially cut off from its surroundings. Walls, fortifications, checkpoints and other obstacles set up by Israel have turned the city into an island adrift in the heart of the West Bank.

Despite these physical obstacles, the city unites every year for Christmas festivities. In Manger Square, a large Christmas tree is lit in a grand ceremony that brings together politicians and groups from across the Palestinian political spectrum. In the cold and windy mountain air, Palestinians and their supporters from around the world come together to celebrate, and temporarily forget about the occupation that dominates their lives.

The city’s fortunes haven’t always been so dire. Back in the 1990s, when hope for the peace process was alive, tourists from around the world would flock to the city in the winter months. Eager to visit Christianity’s holy sites, tourists would make Bethlehem their home base for pilgrims around the West Bank and Jerusalem. The construction of Israel’s separation wall and the notorious “300” checkpoint that separates Bethlehem from Jerusalem put an end to this tourism boom.

Today, the city is stifled by high unemployment and a punishing urban reality. In no uncertain terms, Bethlehem can’t grow in an urban sense. It is ringed by 22 Israeli settlements – some of which could become part of Israel under the current right-wing government – and Israel’s elaborate matrix of checkpoints and barriers. Coupled with a shrinking tourism sector, Bethlehem’s prospects are dim.

The grim reality doesn’t dampen the Christmas spirit though. For two weeks every December, tourists brave the checkpoints, hotel rooms fill up and people enjoy festivities in Manger Square. For the past several years, the Palestinian Authority has lacked funds to help stage Bethlehem’s massive Christmas tree. Local businessmen of all faiths have stepped in to privately fund the celebrations in a warm gesture of multi-faith solidarity.

The eyes of the world will turn to the Church of the Nativity on Christmas Eve. For many, the plight of Bethlehem will only register in the back of their minds but it is critical to remember how the city suffers throughout the year under the crippling weight of Israel’s occupation. As the Israeli government moves steadily onward with efforts to entrench its control, the effects of the occupation can’t be avoided in Bethlehem.

For 2,000 years, the people of Bethlehem have celebrated this season with hope and a message of peace. This year will be no different, despite the ever growing restrictions placed on their movement. The city’s hope is needed now more than ever in the region and the world. If the people of Bethlehem can come together in unity and peace under such oppressive conditions, then there is still hope for the world.

Spare

Profile

Company name: Spare

Started: March 2018

Co-founders: Dalal Alrayes and Saurabh Shah

Based: UAE

Sector: FinTech

Investment: Own savings. Going for first round of fund-raising in March 2019

Children who witnessed blood bath want to help others

Aged just 11, Khulood Al Najjar’s daughter, Nora, bravely attempted to fight off Philip Spence. Her finger was injured when she put her hand in between the claw hammer and her mother’s head.

As a vital witness, she was forced to relive the ordeal by police who needed to identify the attacker and ensure he was found guilty.

Now aged 16, Nora has decided she wants to dedicate her career to helping other victims of crime.

“It was very horrible for her. She saw her mum, dying, just next to her eyes. But now she just wants to go forward,” said Khulood, speaking about how her eldest daughter was dealing with the trauma of the incident five years ago. “She is saying, 'mama, I want to be a lawyer, I want to help people achieve justice'.”

Khulood’s youngest daughter, Fatima, was seven at the time of the attack and attempted to help paramedics responding to the incident.

“Now she wants to be a maxillofacial doctor,” Khulood said. “She said to me ‘it is because a maxillofacial doctor returned your face, mama’. Now she wants to help people see themselves in the mirror again.”

Khulood’s son, Saeed, was nine in 2014 and slept through the attack. While he did not witness the trauma, this made it more difficult for him to understand what had happened. He has ambitions to become an engineer.

if you go

The flights

Fly to Rome with Etihad (www.etihad.ae) or Emirates (www.emirates.com) from Dh2,480 return including taxes. The flight takes six hours. Fly from Rome to Trapani with Ryanair (www.ryanair.com) from Dh420 return including taxes. The flight takes one hour 10 minutes.

The hotels

The author recommends the following hotels for this itinerary. In Trapani, Ai Lumi (www.ailumi.it); in Marsala, Viacolvento (www.viacolventomarsala.it); and in Marsala Del Vallo, the Meliaresort Dimore Storiche (www.meliaresort.it).

Herc's Adventures

Developer: Big Ape Productions
Publisher: LucasArts
Console: PlayStation 1 & 5, Sega Saturn
Rating: 4/5

'Brazen'

Director:+Monika Mitchell

Starring:+Alyssa Milano, Sam Page, Colleen Wheeler

Rating: 3/5

The biog

Name: Salvador Toriano Jr

Age: 59

From: Laguna, The Philippines

Favourite dish: Seabass or Fish and Chips

Hobbies: When he’s not in the restaurant, he still likes to cook, along with walking and meeting up with friends.

Kill

Director: Nikhil Nagesh Bhat

Starring: Lakshya, Tanya Maniktala, Ashish Vidyarthi, Harsh Chhaya, Raghav Juyal

Rating: 4.5/5

SPECS

Engine: 4-litre V8 twin-turbo
Power: 630hp
Torque: 850Nm
Transmission: 8-speed Tiptronic automatic
Price: From Dh599,000
On sale: Now