Christmas, but not much cheer in Bethlehem


Dec 24, 2006

Bethlehem, Dec 24 – Residents of Bethlehem are once again bracing for a bitter, disappointing Christmas. The West Bank city, which used to host around 100,000 pilgrims celebrating the birth of Jesus Christ, expects to receive a fraction of that number this year.

‘There is hardly a Christmas feeling in the city’, says Sami Awad, of the Holy Land Trust.

Most residents blame the Israelis for the roadblocks set up between the city and Jerusalem, erected after the Palestinian uprising broke out in 2000. They also blame them for the controversial separation barrier – a long, concrete and wire structure that snakes along in some places in the West Bank.

Israel says it built the barrier to prevent would-be suicide bombers from reaching its cities, but residents of Bethlehem complain that it has virtually imprisoned them inside their own city, and keeping tourists out.

This year, however, there may be another reason why tourists aren’t coming – the fierce infighting in the Palestinian Territories, which potential pilgrims may not realise has so far been confined almost entirely to the Gaza Strip.

Sitting in his office, with photographs of Martin Luther King Jr, Mahatma Ghandi and the Dalai Lama on the walls, Awad says the Israelis are deliberately trying to keep people away.

‘The Israeli tour operators are telling the tourists not to come, that there is a civil war. But there is no fighting in Bethlehem,’ he says.

Whatever the reason, the scarcity of pilgrims has impacted negatively on the local economy, which centres around tourist trade.

The city’s centrepiece is Manger Square, outside the Church of the Nativity, the traditional birthplace of Jesus Christ. It is almost deserted, with only a few locals and a small group of tourists from Singapore wandering around.

‘We can’t make a living here anymore,’ complains Ismail, a 55-year-old taxi driver. Work is scarce, he says, indicating a long line of taxis waiting, hoping for a passenger.

Says Ahmed, a coffee vendor in the square: ‘Ten years ago there were 70-80 tourist buses coming in -, now there are maybe five.’

He can hardly make a living and cannot pay his wife’s medical bills.

Nearby, a Christian shop owner shouts that he is offering a ’99 percent discount on everything’ in stock. ‘Just to sell something,’ he says with a tired smile.

Bethlehem did receive its annual Christmas grant from the Palestinian government – $50,000 sent by Prime Minister Ismail Haniya of the ruling Islamic Hamas party.

But the cash is needed to pay outstanding salaries and the festive decorations placed in the city have been paid for by private funding from varied sources, including the Islamic Bank and the Lutheran Church.

Adding to the city’s woes is a strike by municipal employees, who say they have not been paid for months. ‘We don’t even have money to come to work,’ says Mohammed, a municipality worker.

These are the street cleaners, who ‘make Bethlehem nice’, as one of the strikers states.

Bethlehem’s mayor Victor Batarsi says he can only hope they go back to work before Christmas, even though ‘there is simply no money to pay the workers’.

He says that the people are not paying their taxes either, owing to the situation.

Batarsi is furious at the international boycott of the Palestinian Authority -, which has been in place since the Islamic Hamas movement won the elections and took office in March, and refused demands to recognise Israel.

‘This is not a Hamas-led government, this is the Palestinian people’s government,’ he states.

Khaled Jodeh, a member of the Bethlehem city council from the Hamas-affiliated Islamic list, echoes Batarsi’s statements.

‘The West wants to punish Hamas, but they are punishing the whole Palestinian people. Bethlehem suffers in particular because of the wall putting our city under siege,’ he says.

About the upcoming Muslim Eid al-Adha feast, which falls between Christmas and New Year’s Day, Jodeh is more succinct.

‘Muslims and Christians here are both suffering.’

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