Palestinians’ yule statehood gambit

‘Celebrating hope’ is subtle message amid Bethlehem tourism season

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The Bethlehem area, which borders lands Israel annexed to Jerusalem after the 1967 Mideast War, has been particularly hard-hit by settlement construction, said Hagit Ofran of the Israeli anti-settlement group Peace Now.

She said the expansion is an attempt to block the Palestinians from establishing a capital in the annexed areas of Jerusalem - a reference to the fact that the construction creates an Israeli buffer between Palestinian areas that Israel has effectively ceded, like Bethlehem, and any part of Jerusalem.

Mr. Regev argued that Israel only approved construction “in areas where there is a strong consensus internationally that they’ll stay part of Israel” in a final peace deal.

After Christmas, Mr. Abbas‘ government also plans to seek U.N. recognition of Bethlehem as a world heritage site, following acceptance of Palestine as a member of the world body’s cultural agency, UNESCO.

The successful UNESCO membership bid further strained relations with Israel, which accused Mr. Abbas of trying to bypass negotiations with unilateral actions. Israel also temporarily suspended the transfer of $100 million in Palestinian tax refunds.

Over the years, Christmas in Bethlehem has reflected the roller-coaster ride of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Tourism experienced a long dry spell at the height of the second Palestinian uprising a decade ago. At one point, Palestinian gunmen on the run from Israeli troops even barricaded themselves in the Church of the Nativity for a month.

During the relative lull of recent years, the number of visitors has risen gradually, in part because Israel has eased access through the barrier of gray cement slabs along the stretch separating Bethlehem from Jerusalem.

This year, the number of foreign visitors is expected to be up about 10 percent from last year, mainly because more pilgrims are coming from Russia and Poland, new markets for the Palestinian tourism industry, officials said.

Local Christians say they have no problem with politicizing the holiday, saying the conflict with Israel affects everyone’s lives here.

“The settlements and the wall turned Bethlehem into a jail,” said Suzan Atallah, a 48-year-old teacher and mother of four.

“My school can’t take the students to sacred places that they read about in Jerusalem because of the wall and the permits,” she added, referring to Israel’s stringent entry restrictions for Palestinians.

In Beit Jalla, a town next to Bethlehem, prayers at the local Roman Catholic church have focused on the fear of losing land to Israel’s separation barrier, said the congregation’s priest, the Rev. Ibrahim Shomaly.

The Palestinians denounce the wall as a land grab because, in many places, it encroaches into the West Bank, effectively pushing the de facto border forward.

Father Shomaly said a new section currently under construction near Beit Jalla will hamper the community’s access to hundreds of acres of land.

“We started praying six weeks ago and will keep praying until God helps us protect our land,” the priest said.

Copyright 2014 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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