No Christmas cheer in caged-in Bethlehem

By Arnon Regular and Amos Harel Bethlehem, encircled by its occupation army, woke up to another bleak Christmas Eve. „It’s a little better than last year, but only just,” said Hanna Nasser, the mayor of Jesus’ birthplace. „Pilgrims come for a few hours and leave, and there’s no holiday spirit. The town is under closure and its north is paralyzed, because of the building of the separation fence,” he said. Nasser said 1,200 pilgrims spent last night in Bethlehem, compared to 50,000 for every day of the holidays in 2000, when they packed hotels newly built for the Millennium. Around 15,000 tourists are expected to visit Bethlehem between the present Catholic Christmas and the Armenian festival on January 18, he said.

Five months ago IDF troops retreated from the city and the PA assumed security authority. But army roadblocks still cage in Bethlehem’s 140,000 residents and adjacent villages. The massive barrier going up along the northern part have left the residents with little hope of deliverance from isolation and impoverishment. All this has also kept away all but a few of the most intrepid pilgrims. There was little sign of Christmas cheer except for the forlorn bulbs dangling on a towering tree outside the Church of the Nativity. Bleak shop windows were filled with neglected displays of lively wooden Christmas carvings. „There has been no work here for three years because there are no tourists,” said Caroline Mickel, standing with arms folded outside her family souvenir shop. A few small tour groups arrived but slipped quickly inside the Church of the Nativity for Mass without looking in the shops. The government said it had relaxed military blockades in the West Bank to make it easier for Christian Palestinians and foreigners to reach Bethlehem. For the first time since the intifada began, fir trees appeared in a few places and some restaurants were half full. The Bethlehem hotel, accommodating mainly journalists and PA officials, reached 50 percent occupancy yesterday – something of a Christmas miracle. Around 10,000 people gathered in Manger Square to watch the traditional pre-Mass procession of clergymen led by Michel Sabbah, the Roman Catholic Patriarch in the Holy Land, plus a a fife-and-drum scouts band. However, most of the spectators turned out to be unarmed Palestinian security and plainclothes men, scores of journalists and impecunious locals, rather than the cheery foreign pilgrims who once poured into Bethlehem and swelled the town’s coffers. „People used to spend the whole year in anticipation of Christmas. Now Christmas is like any other day,” taxi driver Naef Al-Moadi said of the gloomy mood. But despite its severe economic crisis and 30 percent unemployment, there are signs that Bethlehem may be starting to recover a little from the intifada. The Israeli closure on the city does make it difficult for residents to move, and only five or six pilgrim buses arrive per day, but life seems to be continuing. „We are both suffering from a tourism crisis but Israel could at least allow Arab Christians from the West Bank, Gaza, and inside the Green Line to come and help Bethlehem revive,” said Arda Bamia, who is in charge of marketing tourism in the PA. The shops at Manger Square, starved of customers, were draped in protest banners saying „Stop the Wall,” „Don’t turn Bethlehem into a Ghetto” and „The Holy Land Doesn’t Need Walls, but Bridges.” Alongside hung a huge portrait of Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat. About 50 Palestinians added to the somber atmosphere in Manger Square with a sit-down protest to demand the return of their relatives Israel expelled in May 2002, as part of a deal to end the IDF siege on Church of the Nativity. The IDF believes a few thousand tourists will visit Bethlehem in the next few days. A senior officer told Haaretz foreign tourists and Christians from Israel and the West Bank will be allowed in, and that both sides have an interest in keeping order during the festivities. He said the PA was preserving public order and preventing shooting toward Israeli territory. Israeli and Palestinian officers meet in Bethlehem weekly to coordinate protection for the tourists who come for Christmas. BPI.