Christmas boom in Bethlehem
The economy may be lousy in much of the world - the stock markets in New York tanked again today - but there is one place here in Israel where business is booming: Christmas in Bethlehem
. (The picture is from last year's celebration at the Church of the Nativity).
"Jingle Bells" rang out over Manger Square on Sunday as Bethlehem opened a Christmas market that the Palestinian city hopes will help cap a boom year for tourism with a profitable festive season.
"It has been an excellent year," Bethlehem's mayor Victor Batarseh said, forecasting 1.25 million visitors by the end of 2008 and noting a halving in local unemployment.
"We don't have any empty beds. Two years ago, all the hotels were empty."
Trade in the biblical birthplace of Jesus was devastated when a Palestinian uprising against Israeli occupation began in 2000 -- months after a papal visit and millennium celebrations had seemed to lock in a rosy future for Bethlehem as a magnet for tourists and pilgrims in a region aglow with hopes for peace.
Eight years on, hopes for a final settlement with Israel have faded, like the patched up bullet holes in the Nativity Church which bear witness to a five-week siege in 2002. But a decline in violence has tempted back tourists who no longer fear suicide bombers and gunbattles erupting in the streets.
"We have witnessed a rebound in tourism," said Khouloud Daibes-Abu Dayyeh, the Palestinian Authority's tourism minister as she toured the handicrafts and festive decorations on sale from wooden booths in the German-style Christmas market.
"We have put Palestine back on the map as a destination," she added, noting hotel occupancy rates were now typically above 70 percent, compared to 10 percent a few years ago.
Israelis attribute some of that calm on the streets of nearby Jerusalem to the construction of hundreds of kilometers (miles) of walls and fencing around the West Bank. People in Bethlehem blame the barrier for discouraging visitors, who must pass through Israeli military checkpoints to reach the city.
Truth be told, much of the rest of the article goes on to complain how terrible things are for the 'Palestinians' because of 'the wall' and Israeli control. But the Christian population of Bethlehem has declined drastically
since the 'Palestinian Authority' arrived in 1995, and perhaps this is a hint of how things would be for Christians in Bethlehem if Israel were not exercising security control.
Even with more time, Bethelehem can be a confusing place -- a mainly Muslim city where the call to prayer from the mosque on Manger Square drowned out the Christmas carols playing for the tourists and where palm trees and warm sunshine contrasted with the snow-capped Santa Claus figures on sale at the market.
But for many Christians it remains a moving experience.
Yes, were Israel not in control, Christianity would likely be drowned out (or worse) in Bethlehem. And that would be a shame.