‘Bethlehem suffocating!’ – West Bank mayor
The street clashes and attacks on Israelis cast a pall over the celebrations. Crowds were thin and hotel rooms were empty. While the annual festivities in Bethlehem’s Manger Square went on, other celebrations in the city were cancelled or toned down.
According to “sources in the city of Bethlehem” as quoted by the Jerusalem Post today, the number of tourists and pilgrims was lower than previous years. And even those who did visit, chose not to stay overnight in the city. The occupancy rate of the local hotels is estimated at 40 – 50 per cent.
The PA Ministry of Tourism said that, while nearly one million tourists visited Bethlehem during 2015, it predicted that only 7 000 tourists would stay in the city for the Christmas Eve celebrations.
Bethlehem’s mayor, Vera Baboun, says: “Enough! Enough!” She throws her hands up in exasperation. “The tragedy is that … Bethlehem is suffocating,” she says.
Visitor numbers half of 2014’s
An aide from her office presents a printed breakdown of visitor numbers-to date for December: 66 000 compared with 117 000 in 2012 almost exactly half! “We depend on this season. Our economy depends on the tourists who come at this time of year” says Baboun. “And Bethlehem is universal. Its message is universal. Why is the world not doing anything?”
“There are lights, there are carols, but there’s an underlying sense of tension,” said Paul Haines of Cornwall, England, who arrived in Bethlehem following a four-month trek from Rome. Bethlehem has been a focal point for clashes between Israeli troops and Palestinian protesters during a three-month wave of violence that has gripped the region.
The city was quiet on Thursday, although violence raged elsewhere in the West Bank. Israeli authorities said three Palestinian assailants were killed as they carried out or tried to carry out stabbing or car-ramming attacks against Israeli security personnel, and a fourth Palestinian was killed in clashes with Israeli troops, a Palestinian hospital official said. Two Israeli security guards and a soldier were wounded.
Violence made her think twice
Lisette Rossman, a 22-year-old student from Albuquerque, New Mexico, said the violence made her think twice about visiting a friend studying in Jerusalem. She said she was glad she made the trip because “it was one of my dreams to come here”.
Since mid-September, Palestinian attacks, mostly stabbings, shootings and car rammings have killed 20 Israelis, while Israeli fire has killed 124 Palestinians.
By 21:00, traditionally a bustling time of the evening, there were few tourists to drink local wine sold on the square or to eat freshly fried falafel. Earlier a few thousand people did visit Manger Square, admiring the town’s glittering Christmas tree and listening to holiday music played by marching bands and Scout troops. Palestinian vendors hawked coffee, tea and Santa hats. Young children sold sticks of gum.
In recent years, Bethlehem had enjoyed a relative calm and thousands of revellers and pilgrims poured into Manger Square each Christmas. But vendors and hotel owners complained of sagging business this Christmas season.
Xavier Abu Eid, a Palestinian official, said hotel bookings were down 25 per cent from last year, which itself was weak following a war between Israel and Palestinian militants in the Gaza Strip several months earlier.
Manager outlines reasons for decline
Outside the Jacir Palace – Bethlehem’s most luxurious hotel – the pavement stinks of skunk water, the foul-smelling substance used by Israel’s security forces to quell disturbances. Elsewhere, spent teargas canisters and foam-tipped bullets are swept into a sooty drift in the gutter.
The street outside the Jacir sees regular clashes between Palestinians and Israeli troops. They are so regular that when the teargas billows, guests must enter through a side door. Inside the Jacir, the lobby is empty.
RIGHT: one of the Jacir Palace managers, Johnny Kattan
The hotel should be full at this time of year but even in the middle of Bethlehem’s high season it has barely 50 per cent occupancy.
Johnny Kattan, one of the managers, leads the way down to the ballroom, usually at the centre of the Jacir’s festivities. In a normal year this room, complete with Christmas tree, would host a gala dinner for 350 people. But this year isn’t normal. The dinner has been cancelled and the hotel’s famous bar has been closed.
Kattan blames a perfect storm of circumstances for the town’s woes. “After the Paris attacks, Europe stood up as one and decided it wasn’t coming [to the Middle East],” he says. “We also used to get a lot of people from Eastern Europe who come via Turkey and visit here, but not after the Russian plane [downed over the Sinai desert in Egypt in October]. Then there is the situation here …
Some Palestinians hoped holiday cheer would replace the gloom but that was not to be. “The situation is what it is, a war and intifada,” said a Palestinian man, Nustas, dressed in a Santa suit. “But G-d willing, we’ll overcome it and celebrate.”
Latin Patriarch Fouad Twal led a procession from his Jerusalem headquarters into Bethlehem and wished “peace and love” for all. Twal led worshippers in a Midnight Mass at the Church of the Nativity, built atop the spot where Christians believe Jesus was born.
“We pray to change the face of the world, that our world be a safe dwelling place and refuge, where justice prevails over rivalry and conflict, mercy over vengeance, charity over hatred,” he said.