Uomo in Chiesa

There is no one left in Bethlehem: the difficult situation in the West Bank in these weeks of war.

Jacopo Battistini2 November 2023

In Bethlehem it is always Christmas. Or so they say. Since October 7, the situation in this city has radically changed. The unprecedented offensive launched by Hamas on the territories surrounding the Gaza Strip has also had its consequences in the cradle of Christianity.

“The peak tourism season was coming and finally this year it seemed like we were back to pre-Covid levels. In one week I received cancellations for the whole season. In one week I lost three months of bookings, and the cancellations keep coming.” This is what R. tells us, who works in the reception of a Guest House a few steps from the Basilica of the Nativity, which has been deserted for days now. He continues: “The war has scared away tourists, and now that all checkpoints are closed who knows how long, there is no hope for this season. It’s the second season that has failed in a few years. I don’t know how we’re going to do it.”

Basilica of the Nativity completely deserted

Anyone who works in the field of tourism, for which the majority of the population of Bethlehem, finds themselves, once again, in extreme difficulty. “I used to work at the reception of a hotel, obviously I don’t have a contract or anything, my boss just told me not to bother me to come tomorrow.” So says K., who was also left stranded following the total closure of all the hotels in the city, which were completely emptied in a few days.

Fortunately, the city has not been touched by the war (a luxury that has not befallen Jenin, another city in the West Gordania recently hit by a heavy raid), but several rockets have been intercepted by Israeli anti-aircraft fire over the sky of Bethlehem and the incursions of Israeli soldiers into the city, which took place even before October 7, have become much more frequent and heavy.

“My son is eight years old, since he heard the bombings the day Hamas attacked, he doesn’t want to sleep alone anymore, he comes to us in the middle of the night because he’s afraid. My youngest daughter, on the other hand, started peeing on herself again in shock. A few days ago other rockets exploded on Bethlehem, to reassure her I told her that they were the fireworks of a wedding, and mine said: ‘Dad, why are you telling me lies?’. He’s five years old, but he’s already figured it all out.“Unfortunately, Bethlehem is not only tourism and nativity scenes as we sometimes end up imagining it, Bethlehem is a city made up of people, of families like M.’s who tells us about the traumas that her children are going through these days. “I was born in Bethlehem, I studied abroad, but I decided to come back because it is my home and because I want the Christian community here to continue to survive. But with this situation I’m thinking of escaping, of moving abroad where I know my children will have a better future.”

And so every year, every war that strikes this troubled land, hundreds of people decide to flee, to find a better place to live, abandoning their roots. With the war, it is not only tourism that stops but many activities in the city and for a few days it was feared that Israel would cut off supplies of food, water and fuel even in the West Bank, causing the prices of fresh products such as fruit and vegetables to skyrocket, which for a few days cost four times as much as before the war.

It is still too early to know what will happen, the situation is very uncertain. One thing is certain, that this winter there will be only one local Christian community to watch over the holy places of Bethlehem in one of the most difficult moments of recent years.