Local boyscout groups paraded through Nativity Square in the West Bank
city of Bethlehem on Sunday, playing drums and bagpipes to a crowd of a
few thousand Palestinian and international tourists.  The Christmas Eve
parade in the birthplace of Christianity began in the morning and ended
in the early afternoon, though religious services will continue through
the night and into Christmas Day.

Despite sun and warmer temperatures, the turnout of both Palestinian and international people for the Christmas Eve celebration was low, local sources said.  Like the last four years of Christmas celebrations since the latest intifada, few local people and fewer tourists, pilgrims, and international activists came to celebrate, compared to the Christmas Eve festivals in the past.  Like past years, however, both Palestinian Christians and Muslims celebrated the day together, and the recent civilian violence in Gaza did not seem to affect the festivities, local sources added.

"It was a Palestinian festival today, a local, traditional children's parade more than an international Christian festival," said Alaa Hilu, a Palestinian man from Bethlehem City.  "In Mecca during the Hajj the city is crowded by seven to ten million people, but here where Jesus was born and with 1.5 billion Christians in the world not even 5,000 international Christians came to Bethlehem for Christmas Eve this year," he added. 

The city of Bethlehem has been suffering from a severe economic and agricultural crisis since the illegal Israeli wall was built around the city, cutting it off from nearby Jerusalem; historically two twin Palestinian cities.  The economy of Bethlehem is mostly dependent on tourism, but since closures of checkpoints by Israeli authorities have prevented tourists from entering Bethlehem and because of the political instability here, numbers of tourists visiting the city dropped dramatically in the past few years.

Residents of Bethlehem are not only suffering from declining numbers of tourists coming into their city, but, like other Palestinian cities, the residents of Bethlehem are also undergoing American, international, and Israeli aid embargoes, imposed shortly after Hamas won democratic elections last January. IMEMC talked to Imad, a Palestinian teacher from Bethlehem: "This Christmas is definitely difficult for us.  As a teacher I'm not getting paid, and due to financial difficulties, I cannot take my children out and I can't buy them everything they want on Christmas.  Definitely we had better Christmases before.  But after all, we are here today just to try to make the kids feel happy."

Mustafa Al Barghoti, Palestinian legislative councilmember for the National Initiative told IMEMC, "Our people and leaders have to understand that the only way to our freedom is by being united against the Israeli occupation and forming a national unity government will help end the embargoes imposed on us.  Even though it's a hard economic and political situation for our people since we are suffering under occupation and apartheid enforced on us by the Israelis, I wish all a merry Christmas."

In the beginning of December the Palestinian Authority raised fifty thousand dollars to decorate the city of Bethlehem during Christmas in an attempt to attract more tourists to revive the fragile, declining economy of the city.  Salah Al Tamari, the governor of Bethlehem City, spoke to IMEMC about how, despite the embargoes and occupation, the Palestinian Security Forces are trying to provide a safe environment for both local residents and international tourists to celebrate Christmas.  "We are here to show to the people that our security forces are still functioning and that the Palestinian Authority is still doing its job by protecting the local residents and our international tourists who come to the city during this special time.  And despite all financial hardships that our security personnel are facing, they are still doing their job of maintaining peace and calmness."  Saleh Al Tamari finished his interview with IMEMC by saying, "I wish you all merry Christmas and hope to have a better Christmas next year."

The character of tourists in Bethlehem has changed over the past few years, said Alaa Hilu of Bethlehem.  "Nativity Square was nearly empty of tourists today," he said, "because the tourists go from their bus to the church and straight back into their bus.  It shows how afraid of us they are, even too scared to talk to international activists.  You see it in their behavior, the way they treat you; they don't let their ears listen to you." 

The problem, Hilu explained, is the fear instilled in tourists before they even arrive in Palestine.  "First, travel agencies warn tourists about safety issues," he said, like the United States travel advisory warning American citizens not to travel in the West Bank.  "Second, when travelers arrive in the region, already afraid to enter a politically unstable place, they are going to listen to the safety advice of the first people they come across.  In Palestine most tourists arrive through Ben Gurion airport in Israel, so they hear only the Israeli warnings against travel to the West Bank and Gaza."

Bethlehem as a place has become more important than the people who live here, Hilu finished.  "We used to celebrate these moments with international tourists, but these days there are no international tourists.  Tourists come to pray in the church and go home." 



Photo by Ghassan Bannoura © IMEMC.org