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Religious tourism and freedom of movement denied in isolated Bethlehem
by Electronic Intifada (reposted)
Friday Dec 24th, 2004 9:07 AM
Maureen Clare Murphy writing from Bethlehem, occupied West Bank, Live From Palestine, 23 December 2004
"It is quite simple. We have no business," a shopkeeper in Bethlehem's Old City tells me when I ask him how his business is faring after four years of Intifada and intensified Israeli military occupation. Camels and religious figures carved out of olive wood sit neatly and undisturbed on their shelves. His inventory is the same as it was four years ago. Since no one comes into his store to buy his souvenirs, he doesn't replenish his stock. And because businessmen like him are not ordering more merchandise, the factories in Bethlehem are at a standstill.

However, cheerful international media reports on Bethlehem make it seem as though the historic is enjoying a rebirth of tourism. An Associated Press article reports that the city is "often still full of tour buses," and because of a November joint agreement between the Israeli and Palestinian Ministers of Tourism to cooperate to help build their respective tourism industries, the press is singing hopeful songs about the revival of religious pilgrims to the area.

It has been reported that during the Christmas season, an Israeli Tourism Ministry official will greet religious tourists with bags of sweets at the Gilo checkpoint that separates Bethlehem from Jerusalem, named after the illegal Israeli settlement nearby. But there was no such reception for this visitor Wednesday morning. Instead, I was made to wait on a bench for fifteen minutes while the bored Israeli soldiers flipped through a car magazine before they finally checked my passport and let me through, asking me brusquely in Arabic what I was intending to do in Bethlehem, and what I was planning on buying.

"The economy in Bethlehem is dramatically different now [since the beginning of the Intifada]," the shopkeeper in the Old City says, explaining that people are living off of savings accumulated during the tourism boom right after the Oslo Accords and before the current Intifada that broke out late September 2000. Unemployment is rampant, and in the last four years, nearly 10 percent of Bethlehem's Christian population has immigrated abroad, causing much worry about the disintegration of the town's cultural diversity.

Manger Square, which was bustling Wednesday with local children giddy with holiday excitement, is remarkably devoid of tourists despite the Christmas season. And when I walked down Milk Grotto, which leads from Manger Square to the site where legend has it that Jesus received his first feeding, more than half of the shops were closed. Workers at one of the opened stores were busily cleaning its very dirty windows, and it was clear that this was the first time the shop had been open in a long time.

Bethlehem has seen much trauma to its economy since the Intifada. A recent UN report informs, "a total of 28 hotels, 240 olive wood and mother-of-pearl workshops, and 50 restaurants have closed." Fears of violence and Israeli intimidation and closure have stopped religious tourists from coming to both Israel and the Occupied Palestinian Territories, and those that do come to what they consider the Holy Land tend to spend most of their time in Jerusalem, and make only brief day trips to the Church of the Nativity in Bethlehem. Since approximately 18 percent of Bethlehem's population was employed in the tourism sector before the Intifada, and the Annexation Wall that is ghettoizing Bethlehem continues to be built, the outlook is grim.

An hotelier tells me that before the Intifada, the situation was good. Built in 1999, his business was immediately successful, and he boasted its four-star rating. When it opened, the hotel employed 45 people, but currently it employs only eight. Though it has 85 rooms and 160 beds, the hotel sometimes goes by for a month with no customers. At the best times, the hotelier says, ten rooms are occupied. This, despite that before the Intifada the hotel was full all year. And even though Bethlehem is at its peak tourism season, only one of his rooms was occupied at the time of my visit.

He explains how tourists are intimidated by Israeli soldiers at the checkpoints that close off Bethlehem from Jerusalem and the rest of the West Bank. "The guides and tourists say when they come to Bethlehem, the soldiers at the checkpoints hold them up for such a long time that they think Bethlehem is unsafe," so they are afraid to sleep in Bethlehem and they immediately return to Jerusalem after visiting Bethlehem's holy sites.

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"That's the version of the eyewitnesses and participants"anti-racistTuesday Dec 28th, 2004 12:51 PM
heard it beforeSefaradTuesday Dec 28th, 2004 12:39 PM
" That's your version. That's not exactly how it transpired."another Zionist lieTuesday Dec 28th, 2004 12:26 PM
"do you take us for fools?"anti-racistTuesday Dec 28th, 2004 12:07 PM
"he should have been overpowered and then kept under civil custody"do you take us for fools?Tuesday Dec 28th, 2004 11:10 AM
No, you're a racist history bluffanti-racistTuesday Dec 28th, 2004 10:05 AM
This is warhistory buffTuesday Dec 28th, 2004 9:20 AM
There he goes againheard it beforeMonday Dec 27th, 2004 6:43 PM
you knowgehrigMonday Dec 27th, 2004 6:20 PM
Another Zionist lieheard it beforeMonday Dec 27th, 2004 6:17 PM

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