BETHLEHEM, West Bank — The city celebrated as the birthplace of Jesus is usually filled with parades and parties this time of year. There are fireworks, carolers, feasts. Revelers drink a little wine. They dance.
This year? It’s not exactly like Christmas was canceled, but it is a somber, dutiful affair.
“It’s a sad Christmas to be honest,” said Nabil Giacaman, a Palestinian Christian and owner of a souvenir shop, who a few days before the holiday hadn’t bothered to decorate his store.
“I’m just not in the mood,” he said.
The Palestinian leadership decided to tone down the celebrations this year out of respect for the dead.
Since the beginning of October, there have been near-daily Palestinian assaults against Israelis, accompanied by tough countermeasures at the scene of the attacks and at clashes between rock-throwing demonstrators and Israeli forces.
Eighteen Israelis have been killed by Palestinians using knives, automobiles and guns. Some 125 Palestinians have been shot dead — 81 during assaults and 44 during violent demonstrations.
Four of the dead came from Bethlehem, including a 13-year-old boy, Abdel Rahman Obeidallah, who was killed by a sniper’s bullet to the chest. Israeli officials have suggested that the killing was a mistake.
Israel has so far refused to return two of the bodies of the Bethlehem dead, saying they will be celebrated by the Palestinians as martyrs when they should be condemned as terrorists.
The violence here and elsewhere has also reduced the number of pilgrims and tourists, both international visitors and Palestinian Christians who come from Israel and the West Bank.
“We had the most famous bar in Bethlehem. We had to close it down” because there wasn’t enough business, said Johnny Kattan, a manager at Jacir Palace Hotel, a luxury property that has the misfortune of being located a few hundred yards from an Israeli military checkpoint that is the target of violent demonstrations.
There’s often burning tires and tear gas fired right outside the hotel. This week, the sidewalks outside the lobby still smelled of the odious “skunk water” that Israeli soldiers spray to disperse rock-throwing crowds.
The hotel’s gala Christmas dinner was also canceled.
“We’re booked at maybe 50 percent, but we should be 110 percent during Christmas,” Kattan said.
The number of tourists to Bethlehem in October and November were half the number of previous years.
It’s not just the Israeli-Palestinian conflict that’s keeping visitors away, Kattan said. “It’s the Paris attacks, it’s the tensions between Russia and Turkey, it’s the crash of the Russian plane,” the Metrojet flight that crashed in the Sinai Peninsula in late October after a bomb went off, killing all 224 passengers and crew.
“We’ve lost the Russians,” Kattan said, who were known in Bethlehem to be big spenders.
Although the parties were canceled, the religious events will go on. They lit the Christmas tree in Manger Square last week, but instead of the usual fireworks, the churches rang their bells. The annual procession from Jerusalem’s Old City to Bethlehem will proceed.
“Pilgrims should not be afraid to come,” Fuad Twal, the Latin patriarch of Jerusalem, said in his Christmas message. “Despite the tense situation in this land, the pilgrim route is safe and they are respected and appreciated by all sectors in the Holy Land.”
There will be a Christmas Eve Mass at the Church of the Nativity, the 1,700-year-old basilica built above the grotto where tradition says Jesus was born and visited by Bethlehem shepherds.
Earlier this week, Bethlehem Mayor Vera Baboun was watching work crews erect a stage at Manger Square.
“The Israelis are suffocating us,” she said. “The city of peace has no peace.”
The mayor complained that Israel was taking more land to complete the separation wall at Bethlehem’s perimeter. The Jerusalem City Council also approved the construction of 891 units in Gilo, a Jewish settlement that abuts Bethlehem.
Earlier Baboun, herself a Christian, defended the Palestinian leadership’s decision to play down the festivities. “At Christmas we celebrate life, but this year we must show respect for our dead.”
For their part, Israeli officials say the Palestinian leadership has done nothing to stem the violence or dissuade the young from committing attacks.
At Manger Square, a group of Palestinian activists erected a “resistance tree,” the living trunk of an ancient olive tree bulldozed by the Israeli army. They’ve decorated their tree with empty tear gas canisters fired by Israeli troops.
“All we want for Christmas is the end of the occupation,” said Marwa Fararjeh, one of the activists.
Earlier this month, a group of Palestinians dressed up as Santa Clauses, ringing bells and wearing gas masks, confronted Israeli troops at the separation wall in Bethlehem. The Santas offered the troops candy, but eventually the crowd began throwing rocks. The demonstrators and Santas were dispersed with tear gas.
At the Church of the Nativity, often packed with visitors, a tour guide led a group from Singapore right to the shrine that marks the manger where tradition says Jesus of Nazareth was born. “Usually we have to wait three hours to get here,” the guide told his charges. He urged them to take their time and pray. “Many miracles have happened here,” he said.
Anthony Tay knelt and prayed. Then he and his fellow pilgrims sang “When a Child is Born.” Tay said the violence of recent months should not keep people away. But he said it was sad that the Israelis and Palestinians could not make peace.
“You wonder when it will end,” Tay said and sighed. “All we can do is pray for them and pray for peace.”