19 December 2000
By Matthew Kalman, USA TODAY
BETHLEHEM, West Bank — Bethlehem's mayor, Hanna Nasser, looks out over Manger Square from his office window and sighs. The square, with the Church of the Nativity on the far side, should have been the centerpiece of millennium Christmas celebrations. But the hundreds of thousands of pilgrims expected here for the Holy Year events never arrived. In fact, the whole city — with its brand new hotels, rejuvenated square and church and overflowing gift shops — is almost deserted. Nasser dismisses as ''ridiculous'' reports that Christmas is canceled in Bethlehem this year. But he concedes that tourism is almost nonexistent and the celebrations will have a more somber tone after three months of violence in which more than 270 Palestinians — 19 of them from the Bethlehem area — have been killed in clashes with Israeli troops.
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 fateful 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.
Blockade cripples business
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, crippling the already weakened economy.
''Israel is not allowing tourists to enter into Bethlehem, unfortunately,'' Nasser says. ''They come to the military checkpoint and they are not allowed to enter the city - it's very bad. Israel has always said that access to all the holy places is guaranteed, but it's not the case.'' He adds: ''The economic situation in the city is very bad and it is deteriorating. The hotels are empty. The restaurants don't work. Our workers are denied the right to go outside and earn a living.''
Israel says it's not to blame. Despite the ban on Palestinians leaving Bethlehem, tourists can still enter, Israeli spokesmen say. The problem is that some of the most ferocious gun battles have been at Rachel's Tomb, a Jewish shrine dedicated to the wife of Jacob at the main entrance to Bethlehem, which is guarded by Israeli troops.
''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 blockade around Bethlehem and other Palestinian areas works both ways. 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 concedes 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.''
Joseph Ross, a Philadelphia pastor who has led Christian pilgrims to Israel for decades, had been scheduled to bring a group at the start of December, but 22 canceled.
More than $200 million had been invested — half from the private sector — to prepare for Bethlehem 2000. 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 that religious leaders must speak out and remind the 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 has been trying to maintain the spirits of the season. Nasser 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,'' the mayor says. ''We will have a Christmas tree in the square. We will have choirs singing. We will have the Boy Scouts celebrating. 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 his shattered windows and 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 battles they see on TV.
On the other side of Bethlehem, in the middle-class town of Beit Jala, Father Yacoub of the Greek Orthodox Church of St. Nicholas is collecting his own pieces of shrapnel. Palestinian gunmen from nearby refugee camps have been coming into Beit Jala almost every night for the past two months and firing at the nearby Jerusalem suburb of Gilo. Israeli forces have responded with machine-guns, tank shells and laser-guided missiles fired from Cobra helicopters.
Early this month, the gunmen managed to draw Israeli fire toward the church — even though Israeli army officials declared they were avoiding this obvious attempt to draw the region's Christians into the conflict. The damage was small: a shattered window, a damaged light and a bullet-hole in the patriarch's chair. But the psychological impact is incalculable.
The 75-year-old church stands over a fourth-century shrine built to commemorate St. Nicholas, the saint also known as Santa Claus. St. Nicholas lived in the cave beneath the site for two years. But not even the thought of reindeer and sleigh bells will be enough to lift the spirit of Beit Jala this Christmas.
''We will have prayer services, but no other celebrations,'' Father Yacoub says.
Fear and anger
Sana' Abu Amsha, 35, a mother of three and English teacher at the nearby Latin School, is close to tears. ''My daughters are 10 and 8 years old and we have been discussing whether we should decorate the Christmas tree,'' she says. ''They want me to, but I can't. To decorate the tree, it means that inside you must have peace, you must feel happy, but we are not.''
She says her children are having nightmares and wetting 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.
Both sides blamed
Blame is cast in both directions. The Israelis are criticized for Sharon's visit to the Noble Sanctuary in September. And the Israeli army is feared and distrusted for feeding the nationalistic frenzy by responding to rock-throwing throngs with heavy weaponry.
But the local Christian community also has issues with the Palestinian Authority - the quasi-governmental body established under the leadership of Yasser Arafat and the Palestine Liberation Organization. Thousands of Christians have left the Bethlehem area and gone abroad because of what they regard as an anti-Christian bias in the Palestinian Authority. And now they blame Arafat for failing to stop the violence.
''Why did the gunmen have to come up here and shoot?'' asks one Beit Jala resident as he inspects the damage to the church of St. Nicholas. ''Arafat doesn't care if all the Christians get killed.''
There are similar misgivings in Beit Sahour, where residents say masked gunmen hid in their gardens to shoot at the nearby Israeli army base.
''We're scared of them, simple as that,'' says a local man, who speaks on condition of anonymity because he fears reprisals. ''We'd like them to go away, but they have guns and they are officers from the Palestinian Authority security forces. We're not in a position to argue.''
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 the Cobra and Apache 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.''