In his office overlooking Holy Manger Square and the Church of the Nativity, Elias Freij, the mayor of Bethlehem, was clearly in a sombre mood last week. In the square, the Christmas tree was lit and the colored lights were strung from the lampposts. But there was little joy in Bethlehem. Earlier in December violence had erupted throughout the West Bank as protesting Palestinian students battled Israeli troops. Eventually, the fighting spilled over into the normally peaceful streets of Bethlehem. Now, the town was unusually quiet, as most tourists stayed away. Said Freij: “It’s the gloomiest Christmas I can remember.”
As a Palestinian moderate—dedicated to the idea of co-existence with Israel—and as a member of the West Bank’s Arab Christian minority, Freij had reason for concern. In almost 20 years of Israeli military rule, relations between the local people and the occupation authorities have never been worse—nor has business been poorer. The souvenir shops lining the square, with their olive-wood and mother-of pearl religious trinkets, were almost deserted. The restaurants were also nearly empty. And 10 km south, in Jerusalem, the hotels were also suffering—partly due to the tense situation and partly due to the decline of the U.S. dollar. Even the biggest and most stylish, the 21-storey Jerusalem Hilton, had only 40-per-cent occupancy, compared with the normal 70 per cent at Christmas. Said general manager Jeremy Frankel: “We have to stay open for the few who are here.”
The recent West Bank violence began when Israeli troops set up a roadblock near Bir Zeit University and students protested, starting a riot in which one student was shot dead by the army. The trouble quickly spread to other areas, and within 10 days three more Arab youths were killed and 22 wounded in clashes with the troops. Even the moderate Freij did not conceal his bitterness. “What the Israeli soldiers did was unbelievable,” he said.
Still, some tourists were undeterred. George Avery, a retired schoolteacher from Saskatoon, was a first-time visitor to the Church of the Nativity, the 6th-century basilica built over the reputed birthplace of Christ. “I feel very humble to be seeing this place,” said Avery. He added, “Terrorism is a fact of life, and things are never as bad when you actually get to a place.” That optimism was shared by Robert Pieh, a retired university professor from Kingston, Ont., who said, “It’s not as bad as we had been led to believe.” Added his wife, Marguerite, herself a professor of education at Queen’s: “Tourists hardly ever get hurt.”
Indeed, the Israelis were taking extra security precautions to protect visitors. On the roof of the police station overlooking Holy Manger Square, authorities had erected a tent to provide shelter for troops who would spend Christmas Eve on watch. Many more soldiers were deployed in the vicinity. But another Canadian visitor, Harold Dick from Winnipeg, complained, “The Christian Arabs want to celebrate Christmas without soldiers and without all this security apparatus.” And in the narrow streets away from the town centre, that view was echoed. Said Beni Nasser, a Christian Arab doctor: “This celebration is not for us, the local Christian people. It is for the foreigners, the Israelis and the invited guests. We cannot even get into the church for midnight mass on Christmas Eve. And very few of us go to Manger Square beforehand. It’s surrounded by Israeli soldiers whose presence simply reminds us of the occupation.” Added a friend of the doctor: “What you don’t see is our humiliation.”
On the outskirts of Bethlehem, in the Dehaisha refugee camp, Hamdi Faraj, a 30-year-old journalist with ties to the Palestine Liberation Organization, sat on the porch of the small, concrete house that he shared with his wife, his mother and seven brothers and sisters. “The recent troubles can be explained as the reaction of the people against Israeli occupation,” he said. “This is the real Bethlehem.”
The mood was equally gloomy in the narrow streets of old Jerusalem. There, the recent murder of a young Jewish religious student by three Arabs led to rioting by angry Israelis. The Arab merchants, shopkeepers and hotel owners who rely heavily on the Christmas trade said that customers were now afraid to enter the old city. Said shopkeeper Mazin Shaika: “This is not just quiet. This is dead.” On the nearby Via Dolorosa, the path believed to have been followed by Jesus on the way to the Crucifixion, antique dealer George Awaibeh complained: “It is hard for us Palestinians. Politically it is bad and now it is also economically bad.”
Meanwhile, in the lobby of the usually crowded St. George Hotel, the lights were switched off because there were no guests. Several small hotels in Arab east Jerusalem had closed their doors for the winter, and officials at even the big international hotels were complaining of wholesale cancellations. Travel agents said that bookings by North Americans were down by as much as 70 per cent.
For Israeli Jews, the troubles on the West Bank and world criticism of their soldiers’ tough tactics had cast a pall over the usually joyous Hanukkah festival. This year the festival of lights runs from Dec. 27 to Jan. 3. “I was born in Germany during the Second World War,” said Tamar, an Israeli tour guide, as she led a small group of tourists through the Church of the Nativity. “Most of my family did not survive. Please tell people that all we want is to live in peace. I have only known wars in my life. I hope one day it will change.” Mayor Freij, too, was clinging to hope in a situation which seemed to offer little. Said Freij: “Bethlehem is still the safest spot on earth. Its message to the world about peace must be sent out, whatever has happened.”
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