Connect to share and comment

A not-so-merry Christmas in Bethlehem

A lack of tourists, kept away by tour operators and — traders say — the Israeli security barrier, has Bethlehem traders facing a bleak festive season.

BETHLEHEM, West Bank — Bethlehem’s traders face a bleak Christmas this year as they compete for a dwindling share of much-needed tourism revenues.

In early December, workers rushed to erect souvenir stalls on Bethlehem’s Manger Square and turn on the Christmas lights in anticipation of the thousands of tourists who will descend on the town to visit the Church of the Nativity, believed to mark the birthplace of Jesus.

But traders grumble that these tourists are whisked in and out of the West Bank town on half-day tours from Jerusalem. With just an hour or two in Bethlehem, visitors have little time to eat or shop in the nearby Old City.

“Christmas used to mean a lot, now it means nothing,” said Ahlan Subor, a 24-year-old trader, whose shop is stacked with scarves, pottery and handcrafted nativity scenes.

Although just a few miles away, Bethlehem is severed from Jerusalem by an Israeli separation wall, serving as a reminder of the violence that engulfed Bethlehem and much of the West Bank in the second Intifada, or mass uprising, that erupted in 2000 and lasted four years.

Israel hastily erected the wall in 2003, citing the need to protect Israeli citizens from Palestinian terror attacks. International bodies quickly condemned the wall’s construction, with some viewing it as an ill-concealed attempt to seize Palestinian land.

In recent years, Bethlehem has enjoyed a fragile peace in the shadow of the wall. Tourists have returned to the town — a major pilgrimage destination for Christians — and the hotels expect to record soaring occupancy rates during the Christmas period this year.

Nearly 1.5 million people visited Bethlehem in 2008, and officials predict the number will be nearer 2 million this year, according to the Palestinian Tourism Ministry.

The figures appear impressive, but Palestinian officials say that the town sees little financial benefit from these visitors.

Seventy percent of all tourists to Bethlehem return to hotels in Israel, while Palestinians receive a mere 5 percent of total revenues from those visiting both Israel and the West Bank, according to Palestinian Tourism Minister Khouloud Daibes.

“They [the Israel government] are looking more toward their own benefit,” Daibes said. “They know they can’t erase Bethlehem from the pilgrimage route, so they want to reduce visits … to just a few hours.”

Israel has widely touted its efforts to reduce restrictions in the West Bank — mainly by dismantling checkpoints to ease movement of goods and labor — to boost the Palestinian economy. Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s right-wing government sees economic prosperity as a crucial factor in restoring peace to the region.