Despite a year of mounting tensions between Israel and Palestine, Manger Square in Bethlehem put on a brave and festive face, buzzing with much-needed multicultural cheer on Christmas Eve.
French, English, and Arabic Christmas carols blared over a loudspeaker as thousands of tourists, pilgrims, and locals jostled to watch the annual Christmas parade of flag-waving, bagpipe-playing scout bands — a quirky cultural legacy of the British Mandate for Palestine — huff, twirl, and drum their way down Bethlehem's backstreets.
Beneath a giant Christmas tree, street vendors peddled brightly colored bunches of balloons that saw Santa nestled next to Angry Birds and SpongeBob SquarePants. On the sidelines, a Red Crescent medical van gave out bundles of Christmas sweets and free Palestinian flag face paint to children as Catholic nuns and women wearing the Hijab posed for photo album snapshots next to the square's nativity scene.
"I am Muslim but we are sharing in the joy of these celebrations with our Christian brothers," Omar al-Hwar, a social worker from Bethlehem, told VICE News. "Islam is a religion of peace and tolerance, it is not what has been happening in Syria and Iraq."
But beneath the cheery Christmas veneer of Santa hats and baubles, the harsh reality of life under occupation still lingered. Relations between Israel and Palestine continued to deteriorate this year after a bloody seven-week summer war in Gaza and a series of "lone-wolf" terror attacks in Jerusalem.
"I believe in peace but the situation is getting worse and worse," al-Hwar said. "Negotiations with Israel are going nowhere. We need to unite as Palestinians — Christians and Muslims, Gaza and West Bank, to stand together against the Israeli occupation."
In one corner of Bethlehem Square, gas canisters and stun grenades fired by Israeli forces during protests and riots were piled up next to a poster of Ziad Abu Ein, the Palestinian minister who died after an altercation with Israeli forces at a peace protest.
"We live in a Christian neighborhood, Beit Sahour, it's peaceful and quiet but of course we see what is happening down the road, children, teenagers being shot dead," Rachel Shomali, an 18-year-old university student, told VICE News. "That's scary, that's life here."
Surrounded on three sides by an eight-meter high concrete wall adorned with colorful "free Palestine graffiti" — including a piece by the infamous British artist Banksy — passing from Jerusalem in Israel to Bethlehem in the West Bank for Palestinians, both Christian and Muslim, means obtaining special permission to cross Israeli military checkpoints.
In stark contrast, Jews living in the ever-expanding West Bank settlements, including right-wing Israeli foreign minister Avigdor Liberman, are able to move freely between their high-security homes and Israel. Despite being illegal under international law, the construction of nearly 1,000 new homes beyond the pre-1967 boundaries began in 2014.
"It's a very uncomfortable experience," Jean Louis Barbe an Evangelical Christian tourist from France, told VICE News. "I came by bus from Jerusalem today and a female Israeli soldier was very aggressive to the Arab passengers. I wanted to say something but felt I couldn't."
A 60-year-old teacher from Lyon, Barbe said he usually comes to Bethlehem with his family, but traveled alone this year because tensions in the region scared his children.
Louis Michelle, the Catholic owner of a local shop crammed with olive wood rosaries, crosses, and camels, told VICE News the hostilities this year have been bad for business.
"Today is busy but the last week has been like a ghost town," Michelle said. "Bethlehem is usually crammed this time of year, but tourists have been scared off."
Other vendors, hotel managers, and tour guides in Bethlehem also reported a substantial drop in business, some up to 70 percent. Unemployment is high in the West Bank and many of Bethlehem's Christians depend on tourists for their income.
Basel Ghattas, a Christian Arab and member of the Knesset, Israel's legislature, told VICE News that tough living conditions are the driving factor behind the mass Palestinian Christian immigration. Since 1948, the Christian minority population in the occupied territories has fallen from nearly 18 percent of the population to less than 2 percent.
"Christians suffer like all Palestinians under occupation, but as a minority they are even more affected," Ghattas said. "But we are still here more than 2,000 years after the birth of Christ, despite the hardship. That shows strength and determination and we are not going to go away."
Back in Manger Square on the stage, behind the carolers singing about peace and hope for the year ahead, the message emblazoned on the backdrop of the stage was clear: "All We Want for Christmas is Justice."
Follow Harriet Salem on Twitter: @HarrietSalem