Pilgrims celebrate Christmas in Palestinian city of Bethlehem

Some improvements, but not the ideal Christmas spirit

Tourism picking up in Palestine’s Bethlehem following dry years under brutal Israeli policies.


BETHLEHEM, West Bank – Pilgrims could be bringing Christmas joy to the Palestinian city of Bethlehem, flocking in large numbers to the traditional birthplace of Jesus.Tourism had collapsed during the years of the Palestinian uprising due to brutal Israeli policies.
“This year is the best since 2000,” says Samir Hazbun, who heads the local chamber of commerce, pointing out that the Palestinian West Bank city welcomed more than one million tourists this year, twice as many as in 2007.
And Christmas will bring even more cheer, he said. “All hotels in every category are full.”
That represents as many as 3,000 rooms and a sharp contrast to the days of the uprising that started in 2000.
The city of 185,000 has put on its Christmas best to welcome the pilgrims.

Garlands of flickering lights, synthetic pine trees, fake snow and other Christmas favourites give a festive, if somewhat commercial, feel to the city.

Souvenir sellers, who expect to do a booming business in icons, carved Nativity scenes, crosses, rosaries and other religious items, set up inflatable Santas and blow-up snowmen outside their stores in a city that about 20,000 Palestinian Christians call home.

“The atmosphere is good; the tourists have returned massively” said George Babul, sitting outside his Bethlehem Star Store. As church bells rang out, he briefly bowed his head and made the sign of the cross.

A tour guide, named Mohammed, said “being a guide has become a good job again. This year, I have worked almost every day.”

Crowds of pilgrims thronged the Church of Nativity, built on the site where Jesus is said to have been born in a stable because there was no room at the inn.

The boom is having a major impact on the city’s tourism-driven economy and has brought unemployment down to 23 percent this year from 45 percent in 2002-2003.

Last year was the first since 2000 that saw a significant influx of tourism, and the city shows signs of optimism about the future.

The number of restaurants more than doubled in the course of this year — jumping from 20 to 50 — and three new hotels are under construction.

Israeli authorities say they are easing obstacles (which they created) to the flow of visitors to Bethlehem during the festive season.

But an eight-metre (25 foot) high concrete wall separates Bethlehem from Jerusalem, just five kilometres (three miles) to the north.

The wall, which runs for several hundred meters (yards) along the edge of the city, is part of Israel’s controversial barrier, dubbed as the “apartheid wall” – illegal under international law because parts of it are built on Palestinian territories.

However, critics note that Israeli checkpoints and illegal Jewish settlers (many of them extremists) continue to make life unbearable for living under Israeli occupation – both in the West Bank and in Arab east Jerusalem (both Palestinian territories) – since 1967.

Also, Palestinian Christians, who share the same plight as their Muslim counterparts, have frequently protested against Israeli discrimination.



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