Israel-Hamas war, hostage negotiations, Gaza humanitarian crisis

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The Church of the Nativity in Bethlehem, occupied West Bank, on December 24. Hazem Bader/AFP/Getty Images

Church bells echo through the labyrinth-like streets of Bethlehem. With Christmas approaching, the city in the Israeli-occupied West Bank should be teeming with visitors. But this year, it is almost deserted.

Local leaders made the decision last month to scale back festivities in solidarity with the Palestinian population, as heavy fighting raged between Israel and Hamas in the devastated Gaza Strip.

More than 20,000 Palestinians have been killed during Israel’s air and ground offensive, according to the Hamas-controlled Ministry of Health in Gaza and nearly 85% of the strip’s total population has been displaced.

The war was sparked by Hamas’ terror attack on October 7 on southern Israel in which at least 1,200 people were killed and more than 240 others taken hostage.

Many here have ties to Gaza through loved ones and friends, and a sense of misery has fallen upon the city revered by Christians as the birthplace of Jesus Christ.

Decorations that once adorned neighborhoods have been removed. The parades and religious celebrations have been canceled. In the city center, the traditional enormous Christmas tree of Manger Square is conspicuously absent.

Traveling into Bethlehem, about 8 kilometers south of Jerusalem, isn’t ordinarily an easy journey. The Israeli-built West Bank barrier restricts movement, as do the various checkpoints leading in and out of the city. It’s only got worse since Hamas’ brazen attack.

Since October 7, Israel has restricted movement in Bethlehem and other Palestinian towns in the West Bank, with military checkpoints allowing access in and out, impacting Palestinians trying to get to work.

The occupied territory has also experienced a surge in violence, with at least 300 Palestinians killed in Israeli attacks, according to the Palestinian health ministry.

“My son asked me why there’s no Christmas tree this year, I don’t know how to explain it,” Ali Thabet tells CNN.

He and his family live in Al Shawawra, a Palestinian village near Bethlehem, and visit each Christmas “because our relationship with our Christian brothers is a strong relationship.”

He explains: “We join them in their celebrations, and they also join us in our celebrations. But this year’s holiday season is very bad.”

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