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Too-Silent Night

How Jesus’s Hometown Is Coping With War at Christmas

Bethlehem is usually brimming with cheer—and tourists—this time of year. But the war in Gaza has turned it into a “ghost town.”

A Nativity scene in Bethlehem
Maja Hitij/Getty Images
A Nativity scene in the Evangelical Lutheran Christmas Church in Bethlehem shows baby Jesus wrapped in a keffiyeh and placed in a pile of rubble to show solidarity with the people of Gaza.

Every year at Christmas, the hilltop town of Bethlehem comes alive with holiday cheer. Parades light up the cobblestone alleyways around the Church of the Nativity, built over the grotto where Jesus is said to have been born. Restaurants fill with locals and tourists as revelers toast Jesus’s birth with araq, a Levantine anise liquor, and Arabic Christmas songs by Lebanese singer Fairuz resound through the streets.

But not this year.

“Bethlehem is a ghost town,” said Zarzar, who works in the tourism industry, told me in a telephone interview earlier this month. “Normally, Christians and Muslims from across Palestine come here to celebrate Christmas, along with American and European tourists. But they all evacuated when the war started. Since then, we’ve been under Israeli military blockade. We are completely cut off.”

Since Hamas’s attack on October 7, Israel’s military has limited movement for Palestinians across the West Bank, where Bethlehem is located, and conducted daily raids. At last count, 281 Palestinians in the territory have been killed by Israeli forces, and eight have been killed by Israeli settlers. More than 1,000 have fled their homes.

Last month, in response to Israel’s merciless devastation of Gaza, Palestinian church leaders canceled Christmas celebrations. At Bethlehem’s Lutheran church, Pastor Munther Isaac has erected a Nativity scene showing baby Jesus in a destroyed building. “If Jesus was born today, he’d be born as a child in Gaza under the rubble,” he explained in a recent sermon.

The Bethlehem area is home to around 100,000 people, a mix of Palestinian Christians and Muslims. Dotted by religious sites, it depends on pilgrims to survive; Zarzar estimates that three-quarters of its economy is linked to tourism. But these days, around one-quarter of locals are unemployed. Many of the Old City’s white limestone houses sit empty. Palestinian Christians are traditionally a majority, but many have emigrated due to the occupation’s economic effects: Bethlehem is surrounded by Israeli checkpoints and Jewish-only settlements, strangling opportunities for development.

“When people sing ‘O little town of Bethlehem,’ I think they’ve got it wrong,” said Zarzar, who was born and raised in Bethlehem’s Old City. “There is no Christmas for Bethlehem. I would sing instead: ‘O broken town of Bethlehem.’”

From the hills above town, you can see Gaza City only 50 miles away. Smoke from Israeli airstrikes is visible. Instead of Christmas carols, Bethlehem hears the thud of Israeli bombs.

Israel’s assault on Gaza has killed an estimated 25,000 Palestinians. These include many victims from the Palestinian Christian community, including more than a dozen who were killed when Israel bombed a historic Orthodox church where they were sheltering, as well as a mother and daughter shot dead by Israeli snipers in the courtyard of Gaza’s Catholic church just days before Christmas.

Isaac lamented that the United States, which gives billions in military aid to Israel every year, blocked a recent U.N. resolution calling for a cease-fire. “They celebrate Christmas in their land,” he said, “and wage war in our land.”

In the Christmas story, Mary and Joseph take shelter in Bethlehem as they flee Roman persecution. But Bethlehem’s role as a place of refuge is not just an ancient one. Just a stone’s throw from the Church of the Nativity sits the Syriac Quarter. The Syriacs are one of several Christian communities in the city, in addition to Orthodox, Catholic, Protestant, and Armenian; their ancestors spoke a form of Aramaic, like Jesus, and they arrived a century ago fleeing a genocide in the Ottoman Empire’s dying days.

Some of Bethlehem’s Syriacs have been displaced multiple times over. Joseph Khano was born in Bethlehem to Syriac parents who found refuge there after fleeing their home in what is now Turkey. He grew up in West Jerusalem. He told me that in 1948, his family was forced to flee, this time from the Nakba, the expulsion of 750,000 Palestinians from what is now Israel. In 1967, when Israel occupied the West Bank, they were displaced yet again.

On Bethlehem’s edges are three refugee camps founded after 1948. “My grandfather always remembered how they fled into the hills for safety, living in tents during the rain and freezing cold,” said Tamara Abu Laban, a professor at Bethlehem University, whose family is originally from Zakariyyah, a village around 10 miles away. “He told me how the people of Bethlehem helped them during those times, receiving them with love and compassion in the churches and monasteries.”

Over time, the tents were replaced by tin shacks and eventually cinderblock homes. Today, they have become apartment buildings stretching toward the sky even as the alleyways below follow the tight dimensions laid out when they were just footpaths. Dheisheh camp, where Abu Laban lives, is home to nearly 9,000 people, most of whom hope to one day return to their ancestral villages inside what is now Israel. When Abu Laban was growing up, Israel surrounded the camp with a fence, forcing residents to use a single checkpoint to enter or leave. Today, Israeli forces raid the area almost daily, and many young men here have done time in Israeli prison.

For Bethlehem’s refugee communities, Christian and Muslim alike, the Christmas story is tied to their identity. They, too, came here seeking refuge. “We are all proud that Jesus is from here; he is Ibn Falasteen, a son of Palestine,” Abu Laban told me. “We want the world to understand: Jesus was born in this city where we live under military occupation.”

For Palestinians watching events in Gaza—including scenes like the stripping, blindfolding, and parading of hundreds of Palestinian men for camerasthere is a deep sense of mourning. But also fear. “We feel like they could just as easily do the same to us here,” Abu Laban said.

North of Bethlehem is the road leading to Jerusalem. Since the mid-2000s, it has been blocked by a 30-foot concrete wall. Israel calls it a “separation barrier,” while Palestinians know it as the “Israeli apartheid wall.”

Mohammad Al Azza is the director of Lajee Center, a community hub in the Aida refugee camp a few feet from the wall. “We grew up playing in the olive groves next to the refugee camp,” he told me. “But it’s all off-limits now.”

Israeli soldiers, machine guns hanging off their shoulders, watch over the camp from guard towers day and night. Israel said the wall was necessary to stop a wave of bombings. But the wall is deep in the West Bank, effectively annexing large swathes of Palestinian land.

This includes the tomb of the Biblical matriarch Rachel, a pilgrimage site next to Aida that once attracted Christian, Muslim, and Jewish pilgrims. Today, it is walled off from Bethlehem. A checkpoint restricts access to Jews, and an Israeli military base has been built beside it.

During Jewish holidays, according to Al Azza, Israeli settlers chant loudly around Rachel’s Tomb late into the night. “They use loudspeakers so their voices carry into the refugee camp, keeping people up,” he said. “We can’t see them, but during Hanukkah, they yelled loudly to harass us.” It’s a campaign of “psychological warfare,” he added, to “erase any and all symbols of Palestinian identity and existence.”

Since October 7, according to people in Aida I interviewed, the Israeli army has raided the camp almost daily. “They have taken away dozens of men and boys,” Al Azza said. “All the arrests have been administrative detention, meaning they don’t charge you with anything and keep you as long as they want.”

Then, in mid-December, soldiers reportedly pulled down a Palestinian flag on the rooftop of the Lajee Center. They took the flagpole to their army base and mounted an Israeli flag on it. “They are trying to assert their hegemony and make us afraid of them,” he said. “They want us to surrender and disappear.”

Most people who visit Bethlehem are unaware of this reality. Most people who visit Bethlehem avoid these scenes. The tourism industry there is dominated by Israel; most tourists prefer Israeli guides since they are not subject to movement restrictions that affect Palestinians. Many visitors are told by guides that Bethlehem is Israeli and don’t even realize it’s Palestinian.

“Once, an American group visited the shop to buy souvenirs,” a local shopkeeper told me many years ago. “One tourist forgot his wallet and came back to get it. When I gave it to him, he got excited and said, ‘You Jews are such honest people! This is why we support Israel!’ When I told him I was Palestinian, and Muslim, too, he went quiet and walked away.”

It often seems like foreigners just don’t want to face the reality of the Palestinians’ plight. Zarzar complained that Christians around the world sing the name of Bethlehem in churches but are uninterested in the situation facing Palestinians in Jesus’s hometown.

“When I talk to people abroad, I always tell them: Christmas was inspired by Bethlehem. People shouldn’t ignore what’s happening here,” he said. “If Jesus was born today, instead of 2,000 years ago, neither Mary nor Joseph could have entered Bethlehem because of Israel’s apartheid wall.”