- The Washington Times - Friday, December 23, 2005

BETHLEHEM, West Bank — Visitors and pilgrims are returning to this biblical city of Jesus’ birth for Christmas, where five years of Israeli-Palestinian fighting have given way to an uneasy calm.

On Christmas morning, the Latin patriarch and a host of Church dignitaries will head south from Jerusalem via an ancient road to Bethlehem, re-enacting a ritual that began in Ottoman times.

This year, the procession will pass through a metal gate topped with rolls of barbed wire, normally closed but opened briefly so as not to impede the tradition.

Flanking the gate are sections of 28-foot-high concrete slabs that have made Bethlehem a walled city to those approaching from the north.

Half encircled by Israel’s barrier, residents in the city worry that the obstacle will slow a renewed stream of pilgrims and sever Bethlehem’s historic link to nearby Jerusalem.

Israel has deemed the barrier as necessary to keep suicide bombers from reaching Bethlehem’s shopping malls and buses, but a United Nations court ruled in an advisory opinion last year that it violated international law.

On the outskirts of one of Christianity’s holiest cities, the barrier snakes through the hills to close off nearby Jerusalem almost entirely.

Israeli security officials have charged that Palestinian-controlled Bethlehem has served as the base for militants who have carried out deadly attacks in Jerusalem.

The five-year Palestinian uprising has been especially painful for Bethlehem, where the tourism industry that supported the holy city’s economy had all but collapsed.

Visitors started returning here over the past year because of the lull in fighting, but city officials worry that the barrier and new checkpoint terminal at the entrance are liable to scare off pilgrims.

Crossing “was never easy, and now it’s going to be more difficult,” said Bethlehem Mayor Victor Batarseh. “This is an economic war against the city.”

Traffic has been diverted from the old two-lane road to Jerusalem into a crossing complex with a parking lot, pedestrian terminal and a massive sliding gate at another opening in the wall. Jerusalem-bound pedestrians pass through metal turnstiles and are inspected using surveillance cameras.

The wall next to the exit is decorated with tourism posters, one of which reads: “Have faith in Israel.”

Israeli army officials say that foreign tourists during the Christmas holiday won’t be subject to security checks. Palestinian residents, though, will face the same delays they have endured for the past five years.

“It’s not easy passing through all those doors. You feel like a prisoner,” said Kate Komseyeh, a resident of Bethlehem who commutes daily to Jerusalem where she works as a Greek-language teacher at St. Dimitri’s School.

“Bethlehem and Jerusalem are twin cities. It’s the first time in history that Bethlehem has been separated,’ said Jad Isaac, director general of the Applied Research Institute, a Jerusalem-based environmental group. “It will gradually cause Bethlehem to become ghettoized, a further deterioration of living conditions, and further immigration.”

Municipal officials say that unemployment in Bethlehem is more than 50 percent because of the drop in tourism.

On Tuesday, Palestinian gunmen briefly seized control of Bethlehem City Hall, demanding jobs in the Palestinian security services.

But there are signs of life. In an alleyway leading to Manger Square, a team of workers is laying cobblestones and cement over repaired sewer damage from Israeli tanks that roamed the Old City in 2002.

Just across from the Church of the Nativity, the Roman basilica built over the grotto that is the traditional spot of Jesus’ birth, the signs over the storefronts of souvenir shops are shattered from gunfire.

Gesturing to the empty stone plaza of Manger Square, Joseph Tabash, complained that pilgrims go directly from the buses to the church and back.

“Look outside. It’s empty,” said the gift shop owner. “Go to anyplace in the world. Would you see a city center like this?”

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