Sunday, 23 December 2001

Oh little town of silent streets, how still it is

23 December 2001

By Matthew Kalman

BETHLEHEM, West Bank — In the city where the Bible says Jesus was born 2,000 years ago, Christians might not be in the right mood to celebrate this Christmas.

After 15 months of the Palestinian intifada, or uprising, against Israel, Bethlehem is a city ravaged by grief, damaged by violence and teetering on the edge of bankruptcy.

Normally, just before Christmas, Manger Square would be packed with pilgrims standing in line for hours to enter the Church of the Nativity, descend into the grotto and kiss the silver star marking the traditional site of the holy infant's birth. But this year, often not a single pilgrim or foreign tourist is in evidence. The grotto is empty and eerily silent. Souvenir shops have been shuttered.

Michael Giacaman usually keeps his souvenir shop open on Christmas Eve well past midnight to serve the floods of tourists who flock to the traditional processions and singing of carols.

This year, his plans have changed: "I might open for half a day," says Giacaman, surveying the empty square from the doorway of his shop. Two years ago, with millennium celebrations at their height, he sold an armful of mother-and-pearl and olive wood souvenirs to visiting Secretary of State Madeleine Albright. Now, days go by without any sales.

"No tourists come here, so the shop sells nothing," he says. "We've had to export all our olive wood souvenirs to America."

In his office overlooking the square, Bethlehem Mayor Hanna Nasser is counting the cost of the violence.

"We have 22 people dead and 150 injured," says Nasser. "The commercial center was badly damaged by Israeli tanks, which caused about $15 million of damage in 10 days. Our entire yearly budget is only $3 million. We have 70% unemployment, zero tourists in the hotels and maybe three restaurants open out of 86."

He says at least 500 residents have emigrated to escape the situation. "This Christmas, there is no peace, no joy and no stability," he sighs. "Fifty percent of our population are children, and they are the worst affected. I see it in my own grandchildren. They cannot sleep alone — they are haunted by the sounds of gunfire and missiles."

Most of Bethlehem's 28,000 residents are Muslims. Officially, they are united against the common enemy, Israel. Privately, many Christians blame their Muslim neighbors for inviting Israeli reprisals by shooting at the nearby Jerusalem neighborhood of Gilo. Some Christians have been shot in mysterious circumstances, including an elderly former city councilor who refused to follow the instructions of the masked Palestinian gunmen who roam the streets.

The signs of increasing Muslim extremism are clear to see. Opposite the empty Church of the Nativity stands the Mosque of Omar, adorned with a huge banner pledging allegiance to the terrorist Islamic Jihad group, supposedly outlawed by Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat. "Our goal is Allah, our model is Mohammed, our constitution is the Koran, our path is Jihad (holy war)," proclaims the banner. "Dying for the sake of Allah is our highest wish."

Such a public display of Islamic fundamentalism in one of Christendom's holiest sites would have been unthinkable even a year ago.

As this Christmas approaches, the people of Bethlehem have seen too much death to focus on that holiest of births.

"Each year, we are newly born with Christ in this city," says Nasser. "Bethlehem belongs to all Christians. They should come and visit us, particularly now. We need their solidarity to survive."

But the only visitors are people such as Trevor Baumgartner, a 27-year-old child-care provider from Seattle who has come to Bethlehem for the first time to join a group protesting human rights abuses in Israel. He has been in Bethlehem for several days of political training and has not yet visited the Church of the Nativity.

"We here are choosing to engage in this fight through non-violent theory and practice on the ground, and part of that is being here," he says. "I guess you could call this a pilgrimage."

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