As the Christmas season reaches full fervor around the world, holiday spirit is sadly lacking in the place where it all started – the Biblical city of Bethlehem, which Christians revere as the birthplace of Jesus.
The town of Bethlehem (in Hebrew “Beit Lechem”, meaning “House of Bread”), located just ten kilometers south of Jerusalem, is usually bustling with pilgrims and tourists so close to Christmas. This year, however, largely due to the recent uptick in violence and terror in Judea and Samaria and throughout all of Israel, significantly fewer visitors have arrived.
Bethlehem hotels, usually 80-90 percent full by the week preceding Christmas, have not even filled to half their capacity, said Palestinian officials.
According to a local tour guide, in recent years, between 60 and 70 buses full of tourists would arrive every morning in the days leading up to the holiday. This year, however, the daily average is four or five buses – ten at most.
Bethlehem’s festive Christmas celebration, complete with a large, fully decorated tree in Manger Square, has been scaled down this year by the Bethlehem municipality and Palestinian officials. The traditional midnight Christmas mass at the Church of the Nativity will go on as planned, but not with nearly the usual amount of cheer.
The city, which suffers from an unemployment rate exceeding 20 percent, is heavily dependent on tourism. The Christmas season is usually one of the most profitable times of the year, but tourists are being warned away this year, according to local business owners.
Jamal Shehada runs a shop selling Christian souvenirs. According to Ynet, he blames Israeli tour guides and the IDF for the lack of visitors. Tour guides “tell tourists that there are only terrorists in Bethlehem, and many of them say to themselves, ‘We’d be better off buying our souvenirs from the Israelis rather than in Bethlehem’,” Shehada told the news source.
He also mentioned the roadblocks that the Israeli army has put in place around Bethlehem and throughout the territories, aimed at cracking down on terror but with the side effect of making movement throughout Judea and Samaria more difficult and less appealing for tourists, who prefer to visit Israeli-regulated Christian sites located outside of the West Bank.
However, Israel’s senior Roman Catholic cleric, Fuad Twal, urged tourists to come anyway in a recent Christmas message, saying, “Pilgrims should not be afraid to come . . . Despite the tense situation in this land, the pilgrim route is safe and they are respected and appreciated by all sectors in the Holy Land.”
But his message may be too late, at least for this year. “Before, the world came to rejoice and sing with us in Bethlehem. Today there is nothing,” Bethlehem tour guide Hisham Khamis told Ynet. “This year, Christmas in Bethlehem is sad and depressing.”