'O Little Town(ship) . . .'

December 24 2002:

It's 11.30 am and a persistent heavy drizzle spatters Manger Square in Bethlehem, an open concrete space flanked by the Church of the Nativity on one side, opposite the Omar Ben al Katab Mosque, with the town's municipal offices on the other. The mood is dreary.

There are no Christmas decorations, no lights, no procession of the Patriarch and no mannekin Santas that have previously earned the Square a reputation for over-commercialising its unique Christian heritage. This year there will be no laser show.

1st Sect Photo: Discovery Analytical Resourcing

There will be no choirs from around the world participating in the festivities. There is no stage from which musicians will entice revellers to dance. This year, Christians in Bethlehem are celebrating the anniversary of the Messiah to a more sombre tune.

The reason for this is the presence of Israeli forces occupying the West Bank. Since 22 November, the Israeli military has maintained a constant presence in the town: manning checkpoints, stationing tanks at major junctions and maintaining surveillance over civilian movements. This is the third invasion of the town during 2002, being under the sole control of the Palestinian Authority by the Oslo Accords signed in 1993 which aimed to bring a staged peace to the Middle East.

For Palestinian inhabitants, Bethlehem is a town under siege. But today the Israeli soldiers are gone from the roadblocks and since the end of last week there are no tanks parked in Manger Square. Neither are there any tourists, the most important revenue-generating phenomenon of the trading year for Bethlehem businesses. Souvenir and crafts vendors, hotels, restaurants have all seen turnover evaporate as tourists stay away for fear of conflict. Just before the millennium celebrations, it was estimated that between 5,000 and 8,000 visitors would come to see the birthplace of Jesus Christ during the festive season. Now it is said by local traders that that figure can be calculated on two hands.

As the rain thins out for about a half an hour, young children hang around the Church of the Nativity and the Bethlehem Peace Centre trying to sell packs of chewing gum for a shekel a go (roughly 15 pence). I'm meeting with Miriam Aziz, 45, and Manhal Assaf, 21, who both work in the civic information centre in the Square to talk about how Christmas for their families compares to previous years' celebrations.

Miriam explains: "The situation is not so good to make celebrations this year, many people have suffered loss. It is a feeling inside and also people don't have the money to do what they did in the past because their earnings and their standard of living are greatly reduced." She added that there is uncertainty about what the future holds: "everybody is worrying about the war against Iraq."

Miriam has two children and a large immediate family, her mother, six brothers and four sisters, who each have three or four children of their own. Two each of her brothers and sisters live abroad. They are accustomed to holding a feast after attending midnight mass together on Christmas Eve, when they exchange gifts, and to celebrate the New Year together.

Manhal is a muslim but, along with her younger brother and mother, joins in the spirit of Christmas celebrations with Miriam's family. She has two more brothers who reside in Germany and is herself a fluent German speaker.

The two friends also reciprocate their mutual celebrations at Eid-al-Fitr (held in the same regard by Muslims as Christmas is by Christians), the feast that marks the end of Ramadan, when Miriam joins Manhal and her family.

At least, that was their custom. Since the Israeli policy of closures (physical military occupation) of major Palestinian cities, all movement is restricted in times of curfew (notionally twelve hours from 8pm to 8am, but on occasions continuing for days). As a result of this policy, Manhal was unable to see her grandmother, who lives in Al-Khalil (Hebron), this year. And unlike the temporary withdrawal of military closure offered for the Christian festivities, no such concessions applied to Ramadan.

Speaking of the strict curfew enforcement during Ramadan, Manhal said: "we Muslims like to pray and we weren't even allowed outside."

The Israeli government had forbidden Yasser Arafat to travel to Bethlehem to participate in the celebrations.

Urban closures also have an important impact on the workaday rituals of earning a living. In order to travel to her office from her village outside of Bethlehem, Manhal has to wait to pass a checkpoint, where her identity and access pass is verified. She also has to use three separate transports, owing to restrictions placed on distances operated by taxi drivers. The extra journeys all contribute to increasing the cost of living under Israeli occupation.

But more than this, when curfew is applied no movement outside of the home is permitted, which at certain times has meant no going to work and no education for university students and schoolchildren.

All of this is a far cry from the bumper Christmas witnessed just before the Millennium in 1999. "We used to go together to buy presents but nowadays we don't - because it is so difficult for us - we didn't buy anything [this year]" Miriam said, outlining how they have had to change their usual Christmas habits.

Meanwhile in Manger Square, the temporary lifting of restrictions has allowed a small crowd to gather in the foyer of the Bethlehem Peace Centre. Miriam says:"We should pray for peace. Our intention is to pray for peace. It was our Saviour who came for the whole world, not for me only, but for the whole world - Jews, Christians, Moslems, whatever anyone's religion or nationality."