Israeli Arabs flee south to Bethlehem

Refuge seekers help boost local Palestinian tourist industry.

arabs to bethelehm 88 (photo credit: AP)
arabs to bethelehm 88
(photo credit: AP)
Rashid Khoury and his friends from an Arab village in northern Israel lounged around a spacious hotel lobby in the town of Jesus' birth, seeking refuge in Bethlehem from Hizbullah rockets and giving a minor boost to a Palestinian tourist industry ravaged by six years of fighting with Israel. After new violence erupted last month between Israel and Hizbullah, Christian groups canceled their pilgrimages here, and the unlikely Arab travelers from northern Israel, fleeing the rocket barrages that killed a handful of Israeli Arabs, are filling in the gaps. At least 48 people have been killed by Hizbullah rockets in 27 days of fighting. Hotel owners in Bethlehem say about 200 Israeli Arabs have fled their homes in Haifa and the Galilee area that borders Lebanon and rented apartments or hotel rooms in the biblical-era town near Jerusalem. After years of stagnation following the outbreak of Israeli-Palestinian violence in 2000, Bethlehem's tourism industry, the backbone of the town's economy, revived somewhat this year, said George Abu Aita, owner of the Paradise Hotel. That hotel was recently renovated and reopened after being destroyed by the Israeli army during the first two years of fighting with the Palestinians. "Then this war came and all of the groups canceled," Abu Aita said, explaining that the Christian pilgrims who normally visit Bethlehem didn't want to travel to the region if they couldn't also visit Christian holy sites in northern Israel. The Israeli Arab visitors, although not big spenders, are pumping some money into the local economy because with hotels only supplying breakfast, they are forced to eat lunch and dinner in restaurants, Abu Aita said. "We don't have any tourists coming, so it's good, but we don't want to say it's good in this situation because we don't want to see them [the Israeli Arabs] in this bad situation," Abu Aita said. The new visitors spend most of their days glued to the television, watching the latest on the violence that has forced them out of their homes and wondering when they will be able to close their open-ended stay in Bethlehem, Abu Aita said. The Khourys and their friends fled to Bethlehem's Sancta Maria hotel after spending three weeks in a bomb shelter in their village of Fasouta. Rashid Khoury, 39, who does odd jobs for a living, said he did not come to Bethlehem seeking a vacation, but rather sanctuary from the violence. "It's cheaper, and they speak Arabic," he said, explaining why he chose the town. Israeli Arabs often find themselves squeezed between their sympathy for West Bank Palestinians and their need to coexist with Israel's Jewish majority. Many of them belong to clans with members on both sides, causing some tension. Bethlehem, about five kilometers south of Jerusalem, is behind the separation barrier that Israel is building in the West Bank, which is meant to stop Palestinian suicide bombers, but which the Palestinians see as land grab meant to outline a future border. While it is difficult for West Bank Palestinians to cross the barrier, Israeli Arabs can often move freely between Israel and the Palestinian territories. Elias Arja, owner of the Bethlehem Hotel, said many of the Israeli Arabs in Bethlehem are from Maalot-Tarshiha, a mixed Jewish-Arab town where three Arab residents were killed by Hizbullah rockets. The visitors aren't like normal tourists who spend money and buy gifts, but they are somewhat of a boost to the town's economy, Arja said. More Arabs would come from Israel, if the army would letup on some of the regulations barring Israelis from entering the West Bank, he added. "They are staying here mostly because they think they are safer here in the Bethlehem area. That's it," Arja said.