The tree in the Nativity Square in Bethlehem is already lit. Christmas has officially begun in this Palestinian city where, according to the Gospel, Jesus was born. Two thousand years later, no one looks to the sky in search of the star that guided the Magi to the manger, now its inhabitants look in the direction of Ben Gurion International Airport, in Tel Aviv, the main gateway for pilgrims who return to move away due to the new restrictions imposed by the Omicron variant. “We are ready, we have been unemployed for two years because of the pandemic, but we have not lowered our arms and everything is ready … only the pilgrims are missing,” laments Yousef, a Palestinian guide who has been waiting for a group to guide for 20 months, without depositing a euro and without receiving any help from the Palestinian Ministry of Tourism.
The wait is long, but «we know that sooner or later they will return because If someone wants to visit the place where Jesus was born, they have to go to Bethlehem yes or yes. The question is, when?“Yousef wonders on the street of the Milk Grotto, the epicenter of souvenir sales, now deserted and with most of the shops closed.
“Despite all the problems, we insist on the need to celebrate Christmas with the traditional lighting of the tree, the craft market and a full schedule of events for the little ones. Life must go on and our hope for the future is enormous. The coronavirus will not be able to stop our lives “, is the central message that Anton Salman, mayor of Bethlehem, repeats before the media, determined to win spaces of normality in a situation that it is far from that of 2019, when the city received 3.5 million visitors. Now silence reigns, unfortunately for that 80 percent of the inhabitants who they depend on religious tourism.
Jorge does not despair. Every morning he sits in front of the store that opened 57 years ago on the street of the Milk Grotto, Belen Star Store, and there he spends the day “waiting for the miracle,” he says as he insists on showing the incredible collection of portals made of olive wood that it stores on its shelves. Despite the lack of customers, he has continued to buy material and not a single baby Jesus enters the store. “It has been two years of fear, the few tourists who came were afraid of getting infected and we were also afraid of them, but we must trust that everything will improve next year”, says the old man, who confesses that “never in my life I had lived something like this nor in the years of maximum violence in the conflict.
The day-to-day silence in the streets of Bethlehem is filled with explosions and fireworks at night, at the time of the lighting of the great tree in the Plaza de la Natividad, the focus of all the local media cameras. Just a few meters from the tree, the mayor’s words come true and Calle de la Estrella, that route that José and María entered in search of a place to spend the night, becomes a craft market in the You can taste a Swiss raclette, buy local handicrafts, drink Palestinian beers from Taybeh town or taste Cremisan wine, produced by Salesian monks from neighboring Beit Jala. All this between lights, colored stars and Christmas music at full volume. For a few moments the pandemic seems something of the distant past, until you realize that most of the people around you are local and that there is a lack of that foreign presence that on pre-pandemic Christmas filled the city and made the “complete” hang up in the hotels.
Calle de la Estrella, next to the Basilica of the Nativity, is part of the complex declared a World Heritage Site by Unesco. This street has been restored for the third time in twenty years, this time with money from Russian cooperation –Before it was from the United States and Spain–. New paving stones have been laid, the blinds of the shops painted in colors and it aspires to become the epicenter of the festivities.
The Christmas market leads to a Basilica of the Nativity that is free of exterior and interior scaffolding after seven years of intensive renovation work. Only a few details are missing to finish, but funds are needed for that final auction in this temple dating from the 4th century AD and which was erected by order of the Roman Emperor Constantine I.
Before it took two hours to descend to the grotto and touch the star that marks the place where Jesus was born, now one can enjoy this magical place in semi solitude. A few isolated groups, who managed to enter the country just before the new restrictions came into effect, listen carefully to the explanations of the guides.
«They are groups that do not stay to sleep. Most make a one-day visit and leave, ”laments Tanas Abu Aita, owner of the San Gabriel hotel, with more than 60 years of experience in the sector. This luxurious 5-star family establishment opened its doors seven years ago and involved an investment of 11 million euros. Of its 150 rooms only eight are occupiedBefore, they had 110 workers and now they manage with six. “We have 100 rooms reserved for the night of December 24, these are Palestinian families from the north of Israel who want to spend Christmas Eve here. There are also applications for 2022, but it will depend on the pandemic, we know that everything can be canceled at the last minute, “says Abu Aita in the lobby of a hotel where he goes every day at least to have a coffee and remember the times. in which the buses did not stop arriving and they even had to send some groups to Hebron. Abu Aita, like the rest of Bethlehem, knows that only a miracle can save this Christmas.