Silent Nights (Extract)

Extract from a story in Issue 20, January 19, 2009 of The Jerusalem Report. To subscribe to The Jerusalem Report click here. After eight bleak years, Bethlehem, the birthplace of Jesus Christ, enjoyed a very merry Christmas. But will the celebrations continue? Bands of yellow Christ-mas lights marked the way from southern Jerusalem all the way into Bethlehem's congested streets and noisy markets. Braving chilly weather and brisk winds, over 30,000 Christian worshipers and tourists flocked to Bethlehem, the historical and traditional birthplace of Jesus, on December 24, Christmas Eve and December 25, Christmas Day. The proceedings had begun early in the day, when Palestinian Christian Boy and Girl Scout troops, wearing kilts and playing bagpipes and drums, marched through the town into Manger Square. Groups of tourists and local worshipers broke into spontaneous carols as they passed. By the end of 2008, some 1.3 million tourists will have visited the city. "I am happy to have and to maintain the world's interest in this great city," Bethlehem mayor Dr. Victor Batarseh tells The Report. "It brings me great joy to continue to see people make their way here." "We haven't seen this many visitors come into Bethlehem on the 24th since the year 2000," says Michael Mansoor, 47, owner of a souvenir store on Nativity Street, the main business area. Despite the raw cold, he stands outside of his shop on the sidewalk, his arms folded across his chest, smiling as the loudly festive celebrations pass close by him. All of the souvenir stores around Manger Square were doing a brisk business, selling nativity scenes carved in olive wood and other traditional religious trinkets, alongside more modern trappings, including garlands of flickering lights, synthetic pine trees, fake snow and Santa balloons. In his homily at midnight Mass, Latin Patriarch Fouad Twal, perhaps in an allusion to the Palestinian-Israeli conflict, declared that peace was a gift that only God can bring about. Eight years after the outbreak of violence that marked the second intifada brought the tourist industry to an abrupt, devastating halt, the tourists are returning to Christianity's most holy sites - the Church of the Nativity, probably the most ancient church in the world; the Milk Grotto Church, where Mary is believed to have nursed baby Jesus; and Shepherd's Field, where the angels visited the shepherds and told them of Jesus' impending birth. In sharp contrast to the violence in the Hamas-controlled Gaza Strip, a sense of hope seems to be flickering throughout the West Bank and, in Bethlehem, in particular. The decreased violence, the cooperation between the Israeli police and military forces and the Palestinian Authority and Police Force, and Palestinian initiative have combined to make this the merriest Christmas in eight years. Six miles south of Jerusalem, the Little Town of Bethlehem, with its population of 32,000, is not so little anymore. The city is the capital of the Bethlehem Governate of the Palestinian National Authority and a hub of Palestinian culture and tourism. For centuries, locals and visitors have made their way to Bethlehem to pray at the church of the Nativity or to sample one of Bethlehem's rest stops for pilgrims and restaurants for tourists. Home to one of the oldest Christian communities in the world, today only 40 percent of Bethlehem's population is Christian, down from 90 percent in the 1950s. The majority of the Christian population, on the average financially better off than the Muslim population, have emigrated to South America, the United States, Canada, Europe - and anywhere else that would accommodate them. Together with the neighboring towns of Beit Jala and Beit Sahour (also primarily Christian) the predominantly Muslim refugee camps of Dheishe (population 12,804), Aida (population 4,715) and Azza (population 2,054 residents) make up the Bethlehem region. In addition, some 22 Jewish neighborhoods of Jerusalem and settlements surround the city. Yet Bethlehem still remains one of the largest Palestinian Christian communities in the West Bank. In the years following the 1993 Oslo Peace Accords, Bethlehem attracted thousands of tourists. Developers and entrepreneurs began to optimistically renovate and construct hotels and restaurants. An ambitious development plan, Bethlehem 2000, aimed to attract millions of dollars from foreign governments and international development agencies, was launched in 1998. Other initiatives intended to raise funds by encouraging the world's one billion Christians and others to come to Bethlehem during the first year of the new millennium. Public works projects, such as road reconstruction, were launched and storefronts and doors were upgraded, along with window frames and steel shutters in residential neighborhoods. Two luxury hotels were built and 1,800 hotel rooms, including the five-star Intercontinental (Jacir's Palace). Built in 1910 by local craftsmen for the former mayor of Bethlehem Suleiman Jacir, the building's original design was based on the Louvre while retaining many of the characteristics of an Arab home. Jacir and his family lived in the house until the 1930s when the family went bankrupt and were forced to abandon the house. It was later turned over to the British who used it as a prison in the 1940s. It then served as a police academy and a school. It was not until 2000, when a group of private, mostly Palestinian, investors from the Palestine Tourism Investment Co. refurbished and restored the palace, that it resumed its former glory. With 250 luxury rooms and a famous bar frequented by Palestinians, Israelis and visitors, the hotel seemed worth the $60 million investment. Nearby, at the entrance to the city, the four-star Bethlehem Hotel, originally built in 1980, was renovated and an additional two floors were added, so that the four-star hotel provided 166 rooms. Manger Square, once so neglected that it was dubbed the world's holiest parking lot, was repaved and turned into a pedestrian mall. The eyesore British colonial police station was replaced by an elegant modern museum, kept low to two stories so as not to dwarf the Nativity Church. According to records from the Bethlehem 2000 project, made available to The Jerusalem Report, organizers managed to raise $180 million from the governments of Japan, Germany, Sweden, Norway, Belgium, France, Spain, Italy, Austria, and Greece. The projects were implemented by the United Nations Development Program (UNDP). On December 24, 1999, some 15,000 worshipers and tourists packed into Manger Square for the final Christmas Eve celebration of the millennium. The prime ministers of Spain, Jose Maria Aznar, and Italy, Massimo D'Alema, attended midnight mass, presided over by then-Latin Patriarch Michel Sabah at the Church of St. Catherine, the church adjacent to the Church of the Nativity, together with Palestinian Authority chairman Yasser Arafat. And in tentative steps towards coexistence, hundreds of Jewish residents from Jerusalem came to Bethlehem to see the Christmas lights and trees. On March 22, 2000, Roman Catholic Pope John Paul II made his historic visit to Israel and the Palestinian Territories, only the second time that a pope had ever visited Israel. Greeted by Arafat and Sabah at the Church of the Nativity, the Pope declared, "No one can ignore how much the Palestinian people have had to suffer in recent decades. Your torment is before the eyes of the world, and it has gone on too long." And he also encouraged the Christians who live in Bethlehem to "preserve your presence and your Christian patrimony, in this place where our Savior was born." "His visit gave us hope that people know about us and care," Arij Hassan, 25, who was born and raised in the Dheishe camp, tells The Report. But that hope was shortlived. With the outbreak of the second intifada in late September 2000, tourism came to an abrupt halt. Bethlehem was completely sealed off by the Israeli authorities and under curfew for nights on end. "The streets were completely empty," says Rami Khoury, 32, who lives in downtown Bethlehem, with a broad sweep of his arm. As Palestinian armed militia shot at nearby settlements and roads from the hills of Beit Jala, IDF forces returned artillery fire, and the nightly battles were televised worldwide. "Bethlehem bore a big brunt of the second intifada," recalls Khoury. Extract from a story in Issue 20, January 19, 2009 of The Jerusalem Report. To subscribe to The Jerusalem Report click here.