Bethlehem, West Bank — For the first time in years, the people of Bethlehem have something more to celebrate at Christmas than the recollection of an important birth in their town 2,000 years ago.
After the city’s economy was devastated by the Palestinian intifada over the last decade, Bethlehem’s economic recovery has picked up pace in the last year with gross domestic product rising by 9 percent. This Christmas the city’s streets are packed with tourists and pilgrims, and if the holy family were to arrive today they would, once more, discover that there’s no room at the inn — Bethlehem’s hotels are filled to capacity.
Locals see this as an important marker on their road back to normality. “Tourists are coming. Things are all right in Bethlehem,” said Walid Zawahra, a taxi driver.
Zawahra stood beside his yellow Mercedes cab, watching tourists pour through the massive gate in Israel’s security wall around Bethlehem. The gate is opened only once a year, for Christmas, so that the Roman Catholic Patriarch can enter in procession with his entourage from Jerusalem. The rest of the year, visitors must pass through a smaller entrance at the nearby checkpoint.
Security remains a factor, however. The streets beyond the gate were closed to traffic. Palestinian security forces were out in force on the roads around Rachel’s Tomb, which Jews believe to be the site of the burial of the biblical matriarch and where Israeli soldiers still stand guard. The tomb, which has taken on the dimensions of a fortress in the last decade, is a frequent point of friction between the soldiers and Palestinian rioters, and the authorities don’t want Christmas marred by any violence.
The Church of the Nativity, which stands over the site of Jesus’s birth, opened Friday after a 24-hour security closure, as police swept it for bombs before the Patriarch’s arrival for Midnight Mass.
In Manger Square, outside the church, two new cafes have been doing a bumper business, hosting local families and tourists late into the night. A stage built against the buttresses of the Armenian monastery at the front of the church hosted live musical performances in the evening.
The Bethlehem area also has something novel to entertain its young people — namely, something to do after dark. Until recently, youngsters in Bethlehem complained that their city shut down at twilight. Two night clubs opened in the last few months in the largely Christian district of Beit Jala. One of them is named Taboo, because it serves pork and, therefore, contravenes the proscriptions of Islam by which most West Bank restaurants operate.
The intifada, which began in 2000, devastated Bethlehem’s tourist-oriented economy. Almost 90 percent of the souvenir shops in the city closed. Many of the city’s residents emigrated to the United States or South America. Most of those who left were Christian Palestinians, making a shrinking minority feel even more threatened.
This year, the relative quiet has encouraged tourists to return. The Palestinian Tourism Ministry says a record 1.5 million people have visited Bethlehem this year, 60 percent more than last year.
The Bethlehem Chamber of Commerce says there are 31 hotels operating in the city, compared to only six in 1995. Three more hotels are under construction.
Officials at the Chamber of Commerce add that the biggest disco in the Middle East will begin construction in Bethlehem in March.
As always in the Middle East, there remain plenty of reasons to cry “Humbug” in the face of this Christmas spirit. Peace talks between Israel and the Palestinians are stymied, meaning that there’s always the chance violence could engulf Bethlehem once more. And local Christians point out that their numbers have dwindled to a mere 2 percent of the West Bank population, raising the possibility of future Christmases more or less without Christians.
But the city the Patriarch enters today is more attuned to the message of hope inherent in the Christmas holiday than it has been for years.