Near the church in Bethlehem’s Manger Square, built over the site where Christians believe Jesus was born, tour guides pace back and forth, waiting in vain for tourist buses that fail to show.
Hisham Khamis, a guide for 10 years, stands forlorn under a huge Christmas tree decorated in the black, white, red and green colours of the Palestinian flag.
In recent years “at least 60-70 buses would arrive every morning,” he said. “These days… there are four or five, occasionally 10.”
Bethlehem is preparing for the traditional midnight Christmas mass at the Church of the Nativity, but the atmosphere this year is less than festive.
A wave of violence and protests has deterred many tourists from making the annual pilgrimage to the ancient city in the West Bank, though much of the unrest has occurred away from Bethlehem, usually considered a safe destination.
Even so, clashes between stone-throwing young Palestinians and Israeli troops have raged outside Bethlehem hotels, already badly hit by a drop in guests since Israel built a West Bank separation wall that forces visitors from nearby Jerusalem to go through a military checkpoint to get to the town.
On a recent day, the smell of teargas and a foul-smelling spray known as “skunk”, which the Israeli army uses against protesters, still hung heavy in the air.
Palestinian officials say Bethlehem hotels that are usually 80-90 percent full at this time of year have not reached even half that level.
The drop is a major concern for a city that lives largely on tourism and where unemployment exceeds 20 percent.
Tourists frightened off
Jamal Shehada, who runs a shop selling Santa hats, rosaries and other souvenirs, blames Israeli guides who meet tourists from their flights at the international airport outside Tel Aviv.
With no airport in the Palestinian territories, tourists headed for Christian sites there must start their visit in the Jewish state.
“They tell tourists that there are only terrorists in Bethlehem, and many of them say to themselves, ‘We’d be better off buying our souvenirs from the Israelis rather than in Bethlehem’,” Shehada says.
He adds that the army has increased the number of roadblocks around Bethlehem, where streets once teeming with tourists during the Christmas period are now empty.
That has been in response to the violence that erupted at the beginning of October, including Palestinian gun, knife and car-ramming attacks targeting Israelis.
The violence has killed 120 on the Palestinian side, several of them in and around Bethlehem, as well as 17 Israelis, an American and an Eritrean.
‘Pilgrims should not fear’
Nonetheless, the senior Roman Catholic cleric in the Holy Land urged Christians this week to visit.
“Pilgrims should not be afraid to come,” Fuad Twal, the Latin patriarch of Jerusalem, said in his Christmas message.
“Despite the tense situation in this land, the pilgrim route is safe and they are respected and appreciated by all sectors in the Holy Land.”
Nigerian tourist Sherwood N’Guma, taking photos in front of the Church of the Nativity, agreed.
“We were told to always move around with the group,” said N’Guma, adding that he would not have cancelled the tour for anything.
“It is a huge privilege. Not everyone has that opportunity, so I told myself that I had come to Palestine to see what is happening and participate in what God has made of this place.”
His companion, Douglas Saba, said: “Those who come in peace bring peace.”
But because peace seems so far away, Palestinian authorities, including those with the municipality of Bethlehem, have drastically scaled down Christmas festivities.
“Before the world came to rejoice and sing with us in Bethlehem. Today there is nothing,” said tour guide Khamis. “This year, Christmas in Bethlehem is sad and depressing.”