Bethlehem, which neighbours Jerusalem in the occupied West Bank, has been battered by Israeli-Palestinian clashes of years past. But many townspeople have been especially gripped by the current conflict in the Gaza Strip, 50 km (30 miles) away.

Triggered by an Oct 7 killing and kidnapping spree in southern Israel by gunmen from the Palestinian Islamist group Hamas, the war has seen much of the impoverished enclave devastated in an Israeli counter-offensive with no end in sight.

In the early days of every December, church leaders convene in Bethlehem to inaugurate the pre-Christmas Advent season, usually a major tourist draw. But this year the streets and plazas of the hilly town were largely empty and sombre under a dry winter sun.

"We have never seen Bethlehem like this, not even during the time of COVID. The town is empty, sad," Father Ibrahim Faltas, a senior Franciscan friar, told Reuters in front of the Church of the Nativity. "Today was meant to be a joyous day."

Palestinians were in pain at the "many children, women, the elderly, the people who were martyred in this crazy war", he said. Gazan authorities put the Palestinian death toll at more than 15,000, while Israel says it lost 1,200 people to the initial Hamas attack and more than 70 troops to Gaza fighting.

A Nov. 10 statement by church heads in the Holy Land voiced sympathy for people wracked by "the uncertain fate of those dear to them" - a possible reference to families and friends of some 240 people taken hostage by Hamas and kept mostly incommunicado.

For the first time in many residents' memories, no Christmas tree had been erected in Nativity Square, where the church prepared to hold religious services shorn of festive events.

"We will celebrate in sobriety," said Father Francesco Patton of the Custody of the Holy Land church group. "That means without the fanfare and without too many lights, in the most spiritual way and more (among) families than in the square."

(Writing by Dan Williams; editing by Giles Elgood)

By Mustafa Abu Ganeyeh