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2305Inns near empty now in Jesus' birthplace

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  • Fr. John-Brian
    Dec 31, 2004
      Inns near empty now in Jesus' birthplace


      The Washington Times

      Inns near empty now in Jesus' birthplace

      Published December 25, 2004

      From combined dispatches

      There's plenty of room at the inn this year.

      Bethlehem's inns, which had no vacancies for the birth of Jesus about
      2,000 years ago, are largely empty this Christmas season, according
      to a United Nations report that found tourism to the West Bank town
      has fallen 92 percent in the past four years.

      The cycle of violence that began in September 2000 and the 78 Israeli-
      built barriers surrounding Bethlehem have prompted the monthly
      average of tourist visits to drop to 7,249 this year from 91,726 in
      2000, according to the Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian
      Affairs and Terje Roed-Larsen, the United Nations' special envoy to
      the Middle East.

      "Bethlehem has become an isolated town, with boarded-up shops and
      abandoned development projects," the report said.

      Without a political settlement between Israel and the Palestinian
      Authority, "the future for Bethlehem looks bleak," the study

      Still, several thousand pilgrims celebrated Christmas Eve in
      Bethlehem yesterday, welcoming the new thaw in Israeli-Palestinian
      relations and voicing hope for peace in the Middle East.

      While the crowds were larger than in recent years, the numbers were
      far smaller than during the boom period of the 1990s, when tens of
      thousands of people would flood into the West Bank town for
      Christmas. Many of yesterday's visitors were local Palestinians, and
      in a cold, bitter rain, shopkeepers lamented that business remained
      in the doldrums.

      Bethlehem, with almost 61,000 residents, was occupied by Israeli
      forces from 1967 until the Palestinian Authority took control in
      1995. The Israeli army entered Bethlehem again in 2000 amid
      Palestinian unrest and set up barriers along most roads in and out of
      the town before withdrawing last year.

      The Israeli military has eased restrictions for Palestinians in the
      West Bank and Gaza Strip until Jan. 19, so Christians can celebrate
      in Bethlehem, according to a government statement. The period
      includes Christmas rituals for Orthodox and Armenian Christians in

      Israel's army set up checkpoints around Bethlehem to hinder the
      movements of Palestinian terrorists who have carried out repeated
      deadly attacks against Israelis since 2000. The city abuts the
      southern outskirts of Jerusalem.

      But there was plenty to be merry about yesterday. There has been a
      marked warming of relations between Israel and the new Palestinian
      leadership since Yasser Arafat died last month.

      Latin Patriarch Michel Sabbah, a vocal critic of Israel, began the
      celebrations by leading a midday procession of about 1,000 Christians
      through Bethlehem. A Palestinian Scout group band accompanied them,
      playing bagpipes and clashing cymbals.

      In a sign of the growing cooperation, interim Palestinian leader
      Mahmoud Abbas was allowed to join the celebration, where he was
      greeted by cheering crowds. Israel had prevented Mr. Arafat from
      attending the celebration since
      2001, accusing him of advocating violence.

      By early evening, much of the crowd had cleared from Manger Square --
      the stone-paved courtyard outside the Church of the Nativity, which
      Christians believe is built on the grotto where Jesus was born. The
      Israeli army said about 5,000 people had come to Bethlehem, including
      nearly 300 Palestinians permitted to travel across Israel from the
      Gaza Strip.

      The United Nations prepared the tourism report about Bethlehem
      because the town's economy is so dependent on tourism, particularly
      around Christmas, said Stephanie Bunker, spokeswoman for the Office
      for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs.

      Haim Golan-Gutin, director of the Israel Government Tourist Office in
      New York, said tourism has declined so dramatically in Bethlehem
      because it is one of the few major religious sites under Palestinian
      control during the four years of Palestinian rebellion known as the
      intifada. Overall, the number of tourists in Israel has fallen to 1.5
      million this year from 2.7 million in 2000.

      "The intifada has had a big impact, but the war in Iraq was also part
      of it," Mr. Golan-Gutin said. "It's caused tourism to go down across
      the entire Mediterranean region."

      The number of hotel workers in Bethlehem fell to 95 from 393 as 28
      hotels closed since 2000, the report said. At the same time, 50
      restaurants and 240 olive wood and mother-of-pearl workshops have
      closed. Restaurants, groceries, gas stations and other businesses
      around Rachel's Tomb, worshipped as the burial site of the biblical
      matriarch, dropped to eight from 80.

      "Businesses depended on customers traveling on the main road between
      Jerusalem and Bethlehem and people from both cities visiting the
      area," the report said. "Now the area is nearly deserted because the
      road is blocked and due to construction of the barrier in the area."

      The economic decline has produced an exodus of 2,071 Christians,
      tipping what had been a rough balance between Christians and Muslims.
      The shift in population is "likely to have a negative impact on
      skills and capital investment," the report said.

      Palestinians might get an extra $500 million annually in
      international aid if they begin pursuing a peace effort with Israel,
      World Bank President James Wolfensohn said Tuesday in Jerusalem.

      "New opportunities" are being created by the Palestinian presidential
      election set for next month and by Israel's planned departure from
      the Gaza Strip later next year, Mr. Wolfensohn said
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