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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.

These measures have been partly successful, contributing to an expected 7 percent growth in gross domestic product this year. But economists point out that donor aid is as significant a factor for economic growth, and note that hundreds of checkpoints remain.

“When they talk about economic peace … you forget about the core problem, which is the occupation,” Daibes said. “This is Israel’s tactic. They want us to manage the occupation, not (for them) to end the occupation.”

As tourists crowd into the Church of the Nativity to glimpse a sight of Jesus’ manger, souvenir shops in the Old City stand deserted. After exiting the church, most visitors will board a coach bound for Jerusalem.

Anwad Khalil, a 40-year-old trader whose shop is a few yards from Manger Square, said that he had made one sale that day for just 10 euros.

“The big problem is the wall,” Khalil said. “When tourists come and see the wall, they think they are coming to a place of catastrophe. The wall has broken our business. Many tourists are afraid to bring their money and Visa cards with them.”

Some tourists skip Bethlehem altogether, say local hoteliers, particularly if they have visited before. Tourists are put off by the checkpoint in and out of Bethlehem, where they can face lengthy delays.

“Sometimes the buses are not allowed to enter Bethlehem,” said the deputy manager of an upscale Bethlehem hotel, who asked not to be named. “They drop the tourists off between the Israeli and the second border, and tell buses from the Arab side to come and pick them up.”

But Israeli officials bridle at the Palestinian claims. Rafi Ben-Hur, deputy director-general of the Israeli tourism ministry, said his ministry has worked tirelessly to expedite crossings through the checkpoints.

“If the hotels in Bethlehem are busy, it’s good for the area, it will prevent terror,” Ben-Hur said. “We are doing everything [we can] to encourage people to come to Bethlehem.”

Unlike the traders, hotels are enjoying one of their best seasons since 2000, when Christians flocked to Bethlehem in their thousands for the Christmas festivities. This year, hotel occupancy is up by roughly 30 percent.

The vast majority of these, though, are Israeli Arab tourists — Palestinians with Israeli citizenship — while the more lucrative foreign visitors are only slowly trickling back, hoteliers say.

For now, though, Bethlehem is merely getting by, officials say. With little ability to influence the numbers of tourists visiting Bethlehem, restaurateurs and shopkeepers have to make the best of what they have.

“When you are living under occupation, you cannot have a vision,” said deputy mayor George Sa’adeh. “The vision of tourism is controlled by politics and it is controlled by economics.”