Bethlehem Hopes for Upswing in Christmas Tourism

By Julie Stahl | July 7, 2008 | 8:16 PM EDT

Bethlehem ( - Tourists and pilgrims are slowly returning to Bethlehem, the birthplace of Jesus, after years of staying away from the West Bank city, officials and residents said. However, some are concerned that Israel's security barrier and a brand new crossing terminal might curb that trend.

North of Bethlehem, Israel's security barrier is a wall that prevents residents from reaching nearby Jerusalem and Israel. A new crossing terminal is intended to speed the flow of tourists and others into Bethlehem while protecting Israel's security.

The tourism industry, the lifeblood of Bethlehem, dwindled to almost nothing at the peak of the Palestinian intifadah several years ago. Unemployment skyrocketed as a dearth of tourists left hotels, shops and restaurants empty.

But from January to November of this year, some 250,000 tourists had already visited Bethlehem, up from 100,000 during all of 2004.

Unemployment in the city is still running high at 30 percent, but residents of Bethlehem hope to celebrate this Christmas with more pilgrims than last year.

"We are going to have a good Christmas, a joyful Christmas," said Bethlehem Mayor Victor Batarseh.

The city and the main Christmas tree on Manger Square have been decorated, and Palestinian Authority (P.A.) Chairman Mahmoud Abbas will attend midnight mass in Bethlehem, said Batarseh.

Midnight mass is held in St. Catherine's Church, part of the Church of the Nativity complex. According to some traditions, Jesus was born in the grotto beneath the Church of the Nativity, which faces Manger Square in the center of the city.

Manger Square was quiet on the Thursday ahead of Christmas. Not many tourists or groups were visible on the streets, but the city was prepared to welcome its visitors. Stars and other decorations hung on the faces of buildings, and colored lights were strung around the traditional giant Christmas tree near the Church of the Nativity.

Noticeably absent this year were the posters of former P.A. Chairman Yasser Arafat, whose beaming face had been incorporated into holiday decorations throughout the city during his years as president of the P.A.

"We have more decorations in the city than last year," said Louay Ayyad, a Bethlehem area Christian. Ayyad, 30, a tour guide in better times, said the city is expecting about 30,000 tourists this Christmas, which is the low tourist season.

"[The people] are still depressed," said Ayyad. "The problem is not political; the problem is economic."

An estimated 18,000 tourists visited Bethlehem last Dec. 24 and 25. At least that many are expected again for the two days this year, sources said, as long as they are not deterred by the weather.

Stormy conditions and even snowfall -- unusual here especially in December -- are in the possible weather forecast for Sunday.

But there are concerns among Bethlehem residents that Israel's security barrier and the brand new crossing point would pose another stumbling block to a revival of the tourism industry there, as well as further restrict access to Jerusalem for Bethlehem residents.

"We felt an improvement in the flow of tourism compared to the last four years," said Samir Hazboun, chairman of the Bethlehem Chamber of Commerce and Industry. "We hope this will continue despite the new passage."

Before the security barrier was built, the boundary between Jerusalem and Bethlehem was porous at best. Many Bethlehem residents worked legally in Jerusalem, which is just six miles away.

Palestinians flooded across nearby fields into Jerusalem for work, even when there was an Israeli military closure on the area. Now, as testimony to the barrier's effectiveness, hardly any Palestinians cut through the fields anymore, said one woman who works near the crossing point.

The giant crossing terminal, which abuts the security barrier, is intended to make the passage of pilgrims and residents from side to side easier and more secure.

Israeli soldiers check passports and identity papers. Pedestrians walk through a maze of hallways and locking turnstiles, while those in vehicles pass through other security measures. On the return trip to Jerusalem, visitors and residents are scanned, and their belongings are X-rayed.

"It's not very practical," said Hazboun. In the past 38 years, there have been no security problems with tourists, he said.

But Israeli army Lt.-Col. Aviv Feigel, head of the district coordinating office in Bethlehem in charge of the crossing point, said that the Israeli security measures are necessary.

In 2004 alone, 20 Israelis died in two suicide bombings of Jerusalem buses -- terror attacks that emanated from the Bethlehem area, said Feigel.

Israel says that the security barrier, which it is erecting, helps keep suicide bombers out.

"The quiet is misleading in Bethlehem. Terror organizations and infrastructure [are still in] place in Bethlehem," Feigel said. Israel hopes that they won't use Christmas as a platform for trying to carry out attacks, he added.

Israel is trying to find "the balance between the security of Israel and freedom of religion and easing of restrictions," said Feigel.

During the holiday season, which extends for about a month to include the separate Christmases of the Greek Orthodox and Armenian churches, Israel has eased travel restrictions on Palestinian and Israeli Arab Christians, allowing for visits back and forth between the P.A. areas and Israel.

It's a very important and complicated time of the year, said Feigel. Israel is determined to allow all worshippers to come to Bethlehem but not allow the terrorists to take advantage of this, he added.

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