CHRISTMAS in Bethlehem, usually a grand and religious affair, has been cancelled amid the raging war between Israel and Hamas.
Local leaders decided in November to cut back the festivities as a nod to the heavy loss of life incurred since the October 7 massacre in Israel amid the ongoing war.
According to figures from Hamas-run health authorities in Gaza, over 20,000 people have been killed since Israel began its relentless bombardment of the Gaza Strip as it hunts down Hamas.
Over 1,200 Israeli civilians and soldiers also died during Hamas’ brutal October ambush and in the weeks that followed.
While the Gaza Strip has been the focus of much of the fighting, battles have also unfolded in the West Bank, where Bethlehem is nestled.
Many of the residents have loved ones in Gaza and those who celebrate the religious meaning behind Christmas often trek from around the world to the town during the festive season.
The Church of the Nativity, considered to be the exact location of Jesus’ birth and usually filled with an enormous queue, is empty this year.
The once heavily-decorated streets, enormous trees, lights and frequent celebrations are non existent this year.
Shops, hotels and restaurants that would normally be teeming are shuttered.
In the centre of the city, the enormous Christmas tree usually found in Manger Square is not there.
And chillingly, what would normally be a beautifully constructed nativity scene in the centre of the square is instead a baby Jesus buried in rubble and surrounded by barbed wire.
And Israeli forces, who parole access in and out of the West Bank, have clamped down during the heavy conflict.
The Palestinian health ministry have said at least 300 Palestinians in the West Bank have been killed in Israeli attacks.
Ali Thabet, who lives with his family in a village near Bethlehem, told CNN: “My son asked me why there’s no Christmas tree this year, I don’t know how to explain it”.
They visit the town every year on Christmas, but he said this year the season is “very bad”.
He said: “Our relationship with our Christian brothers is a strong relationship.
“We join them in their celebrations, and they also join us in our celebrations. But this year’s holiday season is very bad.”
Shop owner Rony Tabash said the economy there relies on pilgrims and tourism, and that this year they will struggle.
His is one of very few to remain open.
He said: “We’ve never seen Christmas like this.
“Since three months, honestly, we don’t have one sale.
“I don’t want to give up hope.”
A Greek Orthodox priest who works at the Church of the Nativity, Father Spiridon Sammour, said of the empty holy building: “I have never seen it like this.
“Christmas is joy, love and peace. We have no peace. We have no joy.
“It is out of our hands, and we pray for the leaders who will make the decisions [all] over the world to God to help them, give them his light to make peace here and all over the world.”
Israel has faced repeated international calls to relent in it’s attacks on the Gaza Strip as it tries to obliterate terror group Hamas.
Repeated calls from the UN for a ceasefire have been echoed by religious leaders including the Pope and even it’s staunchest ally, the US, has warned caution.
But Israeli forces have said that months of fighting lie ahead in southern Gaza, an area densely packed with the majority of the enclave’s 2.3 million people who earlier fled the fighting in the north.
With homes destroyed, they are living in crowded shelters and struggling to find food, fuel, water and medical supplies.
Diseases are spreading, and communications have been repeatedly cut.
The November truce allowed aid to finally enter Gaza to help alleviate the crippling humanitarian disaster sweeping across the Strip.
Those aid deliveries all but stopped when the fighting resumed, leaving the population dangerously close to famine, the UN has warned.
Figures released on the death toll from Hamas-controlled Gaza state that 8,000 children and 6,200 women are among the some 20,000 to have died.
Israel disputes these figures, while US President Joe Biden previously said he had “no confidence” in them.
But Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has admitted that Israel has “not been successful” in reducing civilian casualties.