By Maher Abukhater
BETHLEHEM Dec 6 – To the cheers of several thousand Palestinians and international visitors who battled zero degree temperatures and extraordinarily tight security to reach Manger Square in Bethlehem on December 5, the traditional 15-meter high Christmas tree was lit.
Churches all over Bethlehem and Palestine—along with churches in 17 countries where cities have twin relations with the Biblical town—sounded their bells when the tree was illuminated with sparkling lights at the end of the countdown for lighting the tree.
The crowds cheered and celebrated the start of the festivities marking the Christmas holiday season at the cradle of Christianity, the birthplace of Jesus Christ.
Yet, the mood was somber as people also took note of over 110 Palestinians killed in two months of attacks during confrontations with Israelis seeking an end to Israel’s 48-year long occupation of their city and the West Bank.
As a result, the fireworks that normally accompany the lighting of the tree were canceled as were other festive events. Only nationalist songs and religious hymns will be played during this season, said Bethlehem Mayor Vera Baboun.
The scouts who marched into Manger Square outside the Church of the Nativity where Jesus Christ is believed to have been born beat only their drums instead of playing the usual festive and loud music from bagpipes and horns.
Baboun said the city of Bethlehem had decided to cancel all of this year’s festive events in memory of the Palestinians killed, wounded and arrested in the last two months, some of whom belonged to the Bethlehem area.
“When the city of peace is under siege, then peace is also under siege,” Baboun said in reference to the eight-meter high concrete wall, barbed wires and Israeli army checkpoints that surround Bethlehem and divide it from nearby Jerusalem.
“This is the first time in history that Bethlehem is divided from Jerusalem and people are not able to move freely between the two adjacent cities that have the most sacred Christian places,” she said.
Christians believe Jesus Christ was crucified and buried 2000 years ago in Jerusalem’s Church of the Holy Sepulcher.
“When peace is liberated, Bethlehem will also be liberated and then we will celebrate as we wish,” said Baboun.
Palestinian Prime Minister Rami Hamdallah, who attended the tree lighting event along with dozens of officials, religious men and foreign diplomats, said that in spite of the gloomy mood caused by Israeli occupation, people will not be prevented from celebrating.
“As in every year, Palestine celebrates its holidays while being tormented [by] a repressive Israeli occupation,” said Hamdallah. “In recent weeks, Israel has escalated its oppressive measures aimed at killing and displacing our people while turning their towns and villages into isolated cantons,” he said.
“As we light the Christmas tree, we remind the world that the city of Bethlehem symbolizes the Palestinian narrative, history and struggle,” he added. “It is illuminated today in spite of its wounds, steadfast in the face of pain, suffering and tyranny; joyful in spite of the wall and settlements that besiege it and through which Israel is trying to suffocate hope and all signs of life in it.
“As we celebrate the birth of Jesus Christ and his teachings of peace and love, we are also hopeful that one day we will get rid, forever, of the Israeli occupation and establish our independent and sovereign state on the 1967 borders in the West Bank and Gaza Strip with Jerusalem as its eternal capital.”