- The Washington Times - Friday, December 24, 2004

From combined dispatches

There’s plenty of room at the inn this year.

Bethlehem’s inns, which had no vacancies for the birth of Jesus about 2,000 years ago, are largely empty this Christmas season, according to a United Nations report that found tourism to the West Bank town has fallen 92 percent in the past four years.

The cycle of violence that began in September 2000 and the 78 Israeli-built barriers surrounding Bethlehem have prompted the monthly average of tourist visits to drop to 7,249 this year from 91,726 in 2000, according to the Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs and Terje Roed-Larsen, the United Nations’ special envoy to the Middle East.

“Bethlehem has become an isolated town, with boarded-up shops and abandoned development projects,” the report said.

Without a political settlement between Israel and the Palestinian Authority, “the future for Bethlehem looks bleak,” the study concluded.

Still, several thousand pilgrims celebrated Christmas Eve in Bethlehem yesterday, welcoming the new thaw in Israeli-Palestinian relations and voicing hope for peace in the Middle East.

While the crowds were larger than in recent years, the numbers were far smaller than during the boom period of the 1990s, when tens of thousands of people would flood into the West Bank town for Christmas. Many of yesterday’s visitors were local Palestinians, and in a cold, bitter rain, shopkeepers lamented that business remained in the doldrums.

Bethlehem, with almost 61,000 residents, was occupied by Israeli forces from 1967 until the Palestinian Authority took control in 1995. The Israeli army entered Bethlehem again in 2000 amid Palestinian unrest and set up barriers along most roads in and out of the town before withdrawing last year.

The Israeli military has eased restrictions for Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza Strip until Jan. 19, so Christians can celebrate in Bethlehem, according to a government statement. The period includes Christmas rituals for Orthodox and Armenian Christians in January.

Israel’s army set up checkpoints around Bethlehem to hinder the movements of Palestinian terrorists who have carried out repeated deadly attacks against Israelis since 2000. The city abuts the southern outskirts of Jerusalem.

But there was plenty to be merry about yesterday. There has been a marked warming of relations between Israel and the new Palestinian leadership since Yasser Arafat died last month.

Latin Patriarch Michel Sabbah, a vocal critic of Israel, began the celebrations by leading a midday procession of about 1,000 Christians through Bethlehem. A Palestinian Scout group band accompanied them, playing bagpipes and clashing cymbals.

In a sign of the growing cooperation, interim Palestinian leader Mahmoud Abbas was allowed to join the celebration, where he was greeted by cheering crowds. Israel had prevented Mr. Arafat from attending the celebration since 2001, accusing him of advocating violence.

By early evening, much of the crowd had cleared from Manger Square — the stone-paved courtyard outside the Church of the Nativity, which Christians believe is built on the grotto where Jesus was born.

The Israeli army said about 5,000 people had come to Bethlehem, including nearly 300 Palestinians permitted to travel across Israel from the Gaza Strip.

The United Nations prepared the tourism report about Bethlehem because the town’s economy is so dependent on tourism, particularly around Christmas, said Stephanie Bunker, spokeswoman for the Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs.

Haim Golan-Gutin, director of the Israel Government Tourist Office in New York, said tourism has declined so dramatically in Bethlehem because it is one of the few major religious sites under Palestinian control during the four years of Palestinian rebellion known as the intifada. Overall, the number of tourists in Israel has fallen to 1.5 million this year from 2.7 million in 2000.

“The intifada has had a big impact, but the war in Iraq was also part of it,” Mr. Golan-Gutin said. “It’s caused tourism to go down across the entire Mediterranean region.”

The number of hotel workers in Bethlehem fell to 95 from 393 as 28 hotels closed since 2000, the report said. At the same time, 50 restaurants and 240 olive wood and mother-of-pearl workshops have closed. Restaurants, groceries, gas stations and other businesses around Rachel’s Tomb, worshipped as the burial site of the biblical matriarch, dropped to eight from 80.

“Businesses depended on customers traveling on the main road between Jerusalem and Bethlehem and people from both cities visiting the area,” the report said. “Now the area is nearly deserted because the road is blocked and due to construction of the barrier in the area.”

The economic decline has produced an exodus of 2,071 Christians, tipping what had been a rough balance between Christians and Muslims. The shift in population is “likely to have a negative impact on skills and capital investment,” the report said.

Palestinians might get an extra $500 million annually in international aid if they begin pursuing a peace effort with Israel, World Bank President James Wolfensohn said Tuesday in Jerusalem.

“New opportunities” are being created by the Palestinian presidential election set for next month and by Israel’s planned departure from the Gaza Strip later next year, Mr. Wolfensohn said.

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