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Thousands of pilgrims and tourists weren't in Bethlehem on Christmas eve due to COVID

ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:

The annual Christmas parade went ahead today in Bethlehem.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

SHAPIRO: The Palestinian city in the West Bank hosts a big Christmas Eve celebration every year. But for the second pandemic year in a row, it was mostly for locals - without the thousands of pilgrims and tourists who'd normally make for a festive crowd. NPR's Daniel Estrin joins us from Bethlehem. Hey there.

DANIEL ESTRIN, BYLINE: Hey, Ari.

SHAPIRO: Let's start with what they are doing today because there were still some festivities. What's it been like?

ESTRIN: You know, it's been a lot of fun. There were thousands of Palestinian scouts. They played in 25 marching bands. They paraded through the city. So picture bagpipes, trombones, tubas, drums. They had pompoms and capes and batons and colorful uniforms. It was beautiful. They were as young as 6 years old, and I met one who is a scout leader who is 70. So it's this beautiful annual tradition. They accompany the patriarch of Jerusalem as he makes his way into Bethlehem.

And last year, only a few local scout troops were invited because of the pandemic. And this year was different. The city insisted on hosting a big Christmas. They invited Palestinian Christian scout troops from many different cities and villages. And, you know, the marching bands just brought this city a pulse. And Bethlehem desperately needs a pulse after two very tough years.

SHAPIRO: Funny - I don't think of bagpipes as a traditionally Middle Eastern instrument. But how are people taking this year, given everything that they have been facing? I mean, this is usually Bethlehem's big day, and it's a lot smaller.

ESTRIN: Yeah, I mean, before the pandemic, I remember coming here on Christmas Eve, and I'd meet, like, visitors from Kentucky who were thrilled to be in the birthplace of Jesus on Christmas. And I remember once seeing a big group of visitors from Kenya who were lining up to kneel down at the Church of the Nativity and touch the spot where tradition says Jesus was born. And this year, this is the second Christmas without pilgrims and tourists. Israel has kept its borders almost entirely closed to foreign travelers, and since Israel controls all entry to the West Bank, that means Bethlehem has been cut off, too. The mayor told me the city has lost hundreds of millions of dollars in revenue. And at least half of the city depends on tourism for income. So this year, the city insisted on holding festivities. They encouraged Palestinian citizens of Israel to spend the holidays here, so there is some cheer this year.

SHAPIRO: Beyond the drop in tourists, what has the impact of COVID been on the West Bank?

ESTRIN: Well, last year there were lockdowns, and it was really, really devastating for the economy. Now, the infection numbers are quite low in the West Bank, and about 44% of Palestinians are double vaccinated. They've only discovered a handful of omicron cases so far. That might change. And in Israel, they're starting to impose new restrictions. They're expecting an omicron outbreak in Israel within a few weeks.

SHAPIRO: So what's the message people want to send on this day that Bethlehem is in the spotlight?

ESTRIN: Well, let me tell you this one story of one man I met, Adnan al-Qurna. He runs the King Solomon Bazaar. He sells nativity scenes. It's a souvenir shop. And during the pandemic, he has hardly had any business. But he still shows up to his shop because he says he wants to feel alive.

ADNAN AL-QURNA: We hope that business comes back. It's not going to be soon, according to the news. But without hope, there is no life.

ESTRIN: That is something I heard over and over from Bethlehemites this Christmas - without hope, there is no life.

SHAPIRO: NPR's Daniel Estrin at the annual Christmas Eve celebration in Bethlehem. Thanks so much.

ESTRIN: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.