Sunday, 24 December 2000

In Holy Land, a somber Christmas

By Matthew Kalman
24 December 2000

Christmas may not have been officially called off in the town where the Bible says Jesus was born. But the bright flame of peace that lit the region last January now flickers amid the renewed ravages of war.

The new Palestinian intifada (uprising) exploded Sept. 29 after Israeli opposition leader Ariel Sharon visited the Noble Sanctuary, known as the Temple Mount to Jews. Control over the site, holy to both Muslims and Jews, and of much of Jerusalem's Old City is one of the key issues that brought the U.S.-brokered peace process to a standstill after months of unprecedented progress.

Since that visit, Israeli-Palestinian battles have raged on the borders of Palestinian-controlled areas in the West Bank and Gaza. The conflict wore on this week, despite the resumption of low-level talks in an apparent attempt to make the most of the interest and engagement of the outgoing U.S. administration.

For the Arab Christians of Bethlehem, the collapse of the negotiations and the ensuing unrest have precipitated an economic disaster because tourists can't, or won't, come here. The mayor says local businesses are denied vital foreign dollars, further crippling the economy. ''Israel is not allowing tourists to enter Bethlehem, unfortunately,'' Nasser says. ''The economic situation in the city is very bad and is deteriorating. The hotels are empty. The restaurants have no clients. Our workers are denied the right to go outside and earn a living.''

Israel claims that despite the ban on Palestinians leaving Bethlehem, tourists can still enter. The problem is that gun battles at Rachel's Tomb, an enlarged Jewish shrine dedicated to the wife of Jacob

at the main entrance to Bethlehem, causes Israeli troops to blocked the road. A Palestinian man carrying carton of eggs stopped by israeli troops (photo by Nasser Shiyoukhi/AP)

''Bethlehem is open at all times to any foreign citizen,'' Israeli army spokesman Maj. Yarden Vatikai says. ''When there are serious gun battles and the road is dangerous, the army closes it even to tourists. Our intention is to allow free access to all holy sites while not endangering the safety of our visitors.''

The Israeli army also has been denying Palestinians entry into Israel. Because at least 200,000 Palestinians earn their living as day laborers in Israel, many Palestinian households -- both here and elsewhere in the West Bank and Gaza -- have no income.

George Mascoby, a guide who works with Near East Tours in Jerusalem, says he has continued to lead tours into Bethlehem since the clashes started. But he says that there are few tourists to take. ''We are in constant touch with our friends in Bethlehem and other places to make sure we are warned in advance of any problems,'' he says. ''If the road is closed, we go somewhere else. The problem is that there are no tourists.''

Vacant rooms, empty streets:

More than $200 million had been invested to prepare for Bethlehem 2000. Half came from the private sector. With the millennium declared a Holy Year for Christians, a grand project was set in motion to rehabilitate the infrastructure to accommodate a record number of foreign visitors. The mayor says 1 million tourists came to Bethlehem in 1999. Until September, it looked as if the number would exceed the year's target of 1.7 million.

The Jacir Palace Inter-Continental Hotel was opened in May in a spectacular renovated merchant's palace built by Suleiman Jacir in 1910. But last week, the hotel's fabulous arched courtyard, whispering fountains and gilded lounges were vacant. The hotel is a few yards from the Rachel's Tomb flash point. Even though its doors remain open, there isn't a single guest in the 250 rooms, even at the knockdown price of $140 a night. The grand opening was canceled and hasn't been rescheduled.

Younis Arar, 29, is the hotel's banquets manager. A Muslim from nearby Hebron, he slips through the Israeli blockade each day and says he supports the uprising, even though it is crippling business. ''We are fighting the occupation, but we are fighting for peace,'' he says. ''What alternative do we have?''

Munib Younan, the Lutheran bishop of Jerusalem, says religious leaders must speak out and remind politicians that most people want peace above all else. ''We have to tell our politicians that our grass roots are fed up of injustice, fed up with bloodshed, fed up with fighting, fed up with these prejudices, fed up with retaliation,'' he says.

Bethlehem's mayor insists that despite the conflict, which has reached past Bethlehem's threshold, plans for Christmas will proceed. ''We will have our traditional religious processions, as usual,'' Nasser says. ''We will have a Christmas tree in the square. We will have choirs singing. . . . But what's missing is the smile on the faces of the children.''

Inside the Church of the Nativity, where visitors usually wait in line at least half an hour to descend into the tiny grotto where Jesus is said to have been born 2,000 years ago, there are few visitors and no foreigners at all on this day.

Teacher Suad Khair shepherds a class of 7-year-olds from the Greek Catholic school in the nearby town of Beit Sahour, scene of heavy gun battles between Palestinian militia and Israeli soldiers guarding a nearby army base. ''The children are so sad, so afraid,'' she says. ''Every day we wake up not even knowing whether we will finish the school day or whether the fighting will start again.''

In Beit Sahour, traditional site of the Shepherd's Field where news of Jesus' birth was first heard, Majdel Atrash surveys the ragged hole where an Israeli missile smashed into the wall of his children's bedroom a couple of weeks ago. Still nursing the cuts on his arm caused by flying shrapnel, he says it is a miracle no one was more seriously hurt.

''We will still have Christmas, for the children,'' he says, ''But this year, we will have new decorations to hang on our tree.'' With a grim smile, he deposits the contents of a bag on the coffee table: shrapnel and twisted metal, the remains of the bullets and shells dug out of his walls and furniture.

Outside, the children are playing in the garden. One boy, holding a wooden rifle, crouches behind an old stove. The other children throw stones at him until he surrenders. Then they attack and capture him. They call the game intifada -- just like the Israeli-Palestinian battles they see on TV.

Sana' Abu Amsha, 35, a mother of three and English teacher at the Latin School in Beit Jala, on the other side of Bethlehem, is close to tears. She says her children have nightmares and wet their beds because of the nightly gun battles.

''I'm afraid to even let my daughters take part in the marches, in case there is an attack,'' she says. ''Instead of going out and watching the events or visiting friends, I think this Christmas, we will just stay at home and hope that nothing happens.''

On top of the fear, there is anger. The residents of Beit Jala had hoped that the Israeli troop withdrawal from Bethlehem in 1995 -- part of the peace negotiations that aimed to give the Palestinians sovereignty over their land -- would lead to peace and independence. Instead, negotiations dragged on, and now there is war.

Spiritual leaders are urging the Palestinians and Israelis to return to negotiations. The alternative, they say, is unthinkable: a bloodbath in the Holy Land. ''We don't want to see'' Israeli helicopters ''in the heavens,'' Bishop Younan says. ''We want to see the real star of Christmas that is telling the Palestinians we will have our own liberation, we will have our peace, we will have our legitimate rights, and telling the Israelis they will have their security also. When this star is shining in Bethlehem, then it will be full of joy.

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