The Palestinian city of Bethlehem, located a few kilometers south of Jerusalem, may be celebrating its best holiday season in years. Reports from merchants and hotel reservation desks say that the number of pilgrims and tourists visiting the city of Jesus’ birthplace are at least 50% more than in 2006. Times haven’t been good for this biblical city made so popular by the event that supposedly took place about 2010 years ago, and tourism has been a far cry from what it was in prior years; especially in the “heady” years following the signing of the Oslo Accords in 1994. The city that used to see many thousands of foreign visitors converge on it during Christmas time became as still as the above words in the immortal poem by Father Philip Brooks in 1865.
Following the beginning of the Second Intifada Palestinian uprising in September 2000, foreign visits took a nose dive; and tourism was further complicated when a number of hard-line Palestinian militants held up in the Church of the Nativity for days before finally surrendering to Israeli army troops who were surrounding Manger Square. Once boasting a large Christian population, Bethlehem is now predominately Muslim. With the main source of income for the city being tourism, the city had fallen on hard times, and has only begun to show signs of recovery in the last couple of years. During the first few years following the historical handshake between Palestinian Liberation Organization leader Yasser Arafat and Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin on the U.S. White House Lawn, Arafat himself and his wife, Sulha (a Christian) attended Christmas Eve midnight masses held in the Church of the Nativity. That all changed following the start of the Second Intifada when Arafat became a virtual prisoner in his West Bank Ramallah. headquarters.
To make matters worse, the Palestinian Authority has now been split into two parts, one in Gaza and under the control of Hamas leader Ismail Haniyeh, and the other in the West Bank under the control of P.A. President Mahmoud Abbas. Following some improvement in relations between Israel and Abbas’ Palestinian segment, tourism to Bethlehem has begun to improve, much to the relief of Bethlehem’s merchants, many of whom have shops in the center of town not far from Manger Square. Many of the items they sell are exclusively tailored for foreign Christian pilgrims including religious motifs carved from olive wood, jewelry and amulets, carpets and clothing with religious and other logos and slogans connected with the historical legend of the town. As Christmas is the most important time of the year for them, Bethlehem merchants have to bank heavily on a large influx of visitors to tide them through the lean months until summer when tourism again picks up for a while.
For those who want to purchase them, Palestinian flags, pictures of P.A. Authority and Charismatic Arab World leaders, and other nationalistic mementoes are also available.
One of the better hotels in Bethlehem, the Jacir Palace Intercontinental, reported that they are nearly full for the first time in years. “Yes, thank God, we have something to smile about this year”, said Farid, one of the hotel’s reception employees. Concerning what will be happening in the future, “it’s anybody’s guess” said Samir, another hotel employee. And rightly so, as current fighting between Israeli and Palestinian forces in Gaza could well spill over into the West Bank, including Bethlehem. Although the city of Christ’s birth has had fewer problems than other West Bank cities, including Ramallah, Nablus, and Jenin, the situation there during the period immediately after the uprising in September, 2000 was very unpleasant, and the Church of the Nativity suffered considerable damage in the wake of its takeover by Palestinian militants.
Israeli border checkpoints have tried to make it easier for pilgrims to come and go this year as a good will gesture to President Abbas. Still, it isn’t like walking into the Old City in Jerusalem, which for many pilgrims has been an alternative Christmas season destination following the 2000 Palestinian uprising.
In any event, Christmas 2007 does seem to be much better for the citizens of Bethlehem, and is much improved over previous years. And for those who so much depend on this annual inflow of visitors, and foreign currency, they can only hope for the best.