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Christmas under siege in Bethlehem

Another Christmas season in the Holy Land, but in the birthplace of Jesus - Bethlehem - you have to struggle to find some cheer. A drive around the town and the picture becomes clear: this is a town under siege.

Last modified: 24 Dec 2009 13:52
Photo by AFP

Another Christmas season in the Holy Land, but in the birthplace of Jesus - Bethlehem - you have to struggle to find some cheer. A drive around the town and the picture becomes clear: this is a town under siege.

The Anastass family has tales to tell about Bethlehem's walled reality.

In 2002, Israel began to build a Wall in the occupied West Bank, which is illegal in international law.

The Wall, which remains under construction, cut through neighborhoods, villages, and towns, devastating the economy. But for the Anastass family, the Wall has literally surrounded them from three sides.

They live on the historic Bethlehem-Jerusalem road, once Bethlehem's most vibrant road. Now, hardly anyone comes here.

To open your window to a Wall is a life-changing experience; to know that it is guarded by armed soldiers that ban you from getting to your rooftop without a special permit is devastating.

But the Anastass's were determined to stay. So, they opened a gift shop for the occasional visitor.

Young, walled in, hopeless

A little boy with bright blue eyes popped in, checking first if the camera was rolling. Daniel did not want to be filmed.

Do you like it here, I asked him. "Of course not," he replied. "The wall is everywhere I look. Did you know they were going to build it even closer to the house?" he asked.

As we left, I told Daniel that maybe I'll come back one day to see if the Wall is gone. "No way, you'd be dead by then" he replied innocently.

It's a statement of hopelessness I've seldom heard from such a young child. And though shocking, Daniel reflected the gloom generally hovering over Bethlehem.

The reality Israeli occupation has imposed here is squeezing Bethlehem’s only hope for economic recovery – tourism.

A few steps away from Manger Square is Star Street – Bethlehem’s ancient gateway – now abandoned and derelict.

It is believed that Joseph and Mary walked through this road to enter Bethlehem. But if you look around, there isn't a single tourist in sight.

Shops are closed, spider webs have replaced a once vibrant social and economic life here. This is the true face of tourism, local business owners kept telling me.

Monopolising tourism

While approximately 5,000 pilgrims and tourists arrive at the Church of Nativity every day, these numbers are having little effect on the local tourism industry because only a fraction of them spends a night here or eats a meal.

Experts attribute this to Israel’s control over the tourism industry.

checkpoint_Bethlehem.Israel has granted licenses to only 185 Palestinian tour guides, and only 40 of them are allowed into Jerusalem or Israel. But 7,150 Israelis are licensed guides; allowing them to monopolise the pilgrimage sector.

This has a direct effect on income. In 2008, about 1.3 million people visited the occupied West Bank - less than half a million of them spent the night here.

Compare that to about 3 million visitors in Israel, a third of whom slept in Israeli hotels. And while the average overnight for tourists in the occupied West Bank is one night, Israeli tourism statistics show that these tourists spend an average of seven nights in Israel.

Israel also collects taxes and visa fees for all pilgrims, including those entering the occupied West Bank. Entrance to Palestinian historic and archeological sites is free of charge; Israel charges for entry to many sites it controls, including those illegally managed by Israel in the occupied West Bank.

Inside the Church of Nativity, I met a group of Nigerian faithful. They're on a 10-day pilgrimage to the Holy Land, and their trip was organised through an Israeli office.

How much time are you spending in the Palestinian areas, I asked Reverand Father Dotto Alfonsos Ezuke. "We are here perhaps for about 6 to 8 hours". So did he meet any Palestinians? “I met some outside; tried to chat, make some friends,” the good Reverend told me.

Israeli settlements – land grab, tourism grab

A 20-minute drive from Bethlehem City is Herodeon Park. It is situated in the occupied West Bank. Yet, Israel’s National Parks Authority runs the site.

The staff banned us from entering, claiming we needed a permit from Israel’s national park authority.

"But you’re in the West Bank", I told the staffer. "No, you’re in Judea”, he replied. Do you get Palestinian visitors here? I inquired. “Sorry, what are Palestinian tourists?” he replied.

International Law experts say these parks in the West Bank and the revenues they bring are for Palestinians to collect. For now though, Palestinians are barred from these revenues, like most of their occupied land.

The Catholic patriarch’s message this year is equally somber.

‘The painful reality contradicts our dreams,” Patriarch Fuad Twal said. But he added:

"Despite all that, our hope remains alive ... (because) hope encourages us to change the reality we live. Hope does not mean surrendering to evil; it means resisting it."