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Washington Report on Middle East Affairs, January/February 2000, pages 33, 34

Special Report

As Bethlehem Prepares for Millennium Tourism, Israelis Are Increasing the Obstacles

By Roxane Assaf

Middle Eastern sun streaking through clouds of construction dust has been as common a sight in Bethlehem lately as are falafel stands and streetside chicken roasters. The effort to ready the "little town" for millions of millennial pilgrims has been underway nonstop for months, and construction teams are working more relentlessly than ever to finish the job. While some streets around Manger Square are still gutted for the routing of new water lines, electricity and updated telephone service, many are freshly finished with white, hand-etched stone bricks laid one at a time by skilled locals. Meanwhile, a specially trained force of multilingual tourist police don sharp navy uniforms and shiny name tags, as they stand prepared to assure visitors of a warm Palestinian welcome.

However, on Oct. 31 Ha'aretz, Israel's English-language daily, reported that the U.S. State Department, which gets its information from the embassy in Tel Aviv, the consulate in Jerusalem and various news sources, issued a warning to Americans to exercise caution when traveling in Bethlehem. This warning will be on record for public consumption with the information officers at the State Department through the first of February 2000. According to a State Department Consular Services representative, the West Bank is always listed as an area of instability. However, both Bethlehem and Ramallah (a Palestinian town that hasn't seen recent violence but which is becoming a draw for tourists from nearby Jerusalem) are to be considered more dangerous now than usual.

Toward the end of October clashes did occur for several days in Bethlehem between Palestinian teenage boys who threw rocks and Israeli soldiers who dispersed them with tear gas and rubber-coated bullets. The skirmishes were provoked by the daily sealing off at odd intervals of the border between Bethlehem and Jerusalem. But tourists making their pilgrimage to Bethlehem, five miles from the center of Jerusalem, continued their trek to the Basilica of the Nativity on Manger Square via an alternate route into Bethlehem, taking little notice of the scrapes. And those lodging in Bethlehem went about their days unaffected by the events unless they happened to be near the border, where the clashes took place. According to the Palestinian Ministry of Tourism, no visitors were hurt, and no tours were canceled.

In fact, Bethlehem has no history of tourists sustaining injuries as a result of domestic conflict, according to Mariam Shaheen, press coordinator for the development project Bethlehem 2000. "Not a single tourist has ever been hurt in Bethlehem. The track record speaks for itself," she says. "It's very unfortunate when the State Department punishes the victims instead of the perpetrators."

By "perpetrators" Shaheen means the Israeli administration. The stone-throwing began as a result of an unfortunately timed change in the structure of Bethlehem's border crossing. Lack of mobility is a familiar insult and aggravation to Bethlehemites and all other West Bankers, most of whom are not permitted to enter Jerusalem at all. But these closures marked the beginning of an Israeli project to install a permanent checkpoint for crossing from Bethlehem to Jerusalem instead of the "temporary" one in place since the intifada.

The new border passage, fashioned after the Erez checkpoint cutting off Gaza from Israel and the West Bank, will operate on the same terms as Erez, with special lines for VIPs and tourists, while Palestinians will cross unseen by way of a different street. The crossing procedures will change as well. Now it is possible to get a shared taxi, or "service," from Bethlehem to Jerusalem, making one stop at the checkpoint towers on the main road to show permits, passports and IDs to armed Israeli soldiers. Under the new system, Palestinians will not be able to cross the border in taxis. They will have to get out of the cars and vans at the border, cross on foot through a series of corrals, show their papers to any number of armed soldiers, and then hail another service taxi on the other side to continue on to work or worship in Jerusalem.

And in addition to feeling further demoralized by this new procedure, Palestinians are incensed at the redrawing of the municipal border, which carves away a large part of northern Bethlehem in fulfillment of Israel's unilateral plan to extend the borders of what they call "Greater Jerusalem" to include Rachel's Tomb.

Aside from the constant torment of land confiscation, Bethlehem has much to lose financially if plans for 2000 go awry. With a budget of $160 million to restore and renovate the city and create an infrastructure for a viable tourist trade, Shaheen says, "Bethlehem 2000 can't afford to build upon a false premise. And condoning this checkpoint would be just that." She goes on, "It's very peculiar that the Israeli government decided to start building so close to the start of the millennium celebration. Somebody is trying to put our backs against the wall. The time limitation we have within which to quietly accept this is just nasty—but typical."

Shaheen says it would be understandable if what the Israelis wanted to do was to create more lanes, one or two for tour buses and the rest for other traffic. But, she argues, "The logic of an Erez-style checkpoint is warped. It implies that tourism traffic will be facilitated by one lane for 'white' people and one lane for 'blacks.' It serves no logical purpose to have one lane for Palestinians and another for foreigners and Israelis."

In light of this change in the system, Col. Abu Ali Aiesh, general commander of the Palestinian Tourist Police, also expresses concern that Israelis are in the process of stepping up deliberate efforts to stem the flow of visitors and foreign dignitaries headed to Palestinian territory for the millennium. "We hear all the time from tourists that when they arrived at Ben-Gurion Airport, Israeli security had warned them that the situation in Bethlehem is bad and dangerous. And Israeli soldiers tell them, 'Okay, go to Bethlehem, but you go at your own risk.' So when they come here and see the reality, they want to know what the precautions were all about."

According to George Samour, director of licensing for the Palestinian Ministry of Tourism, the presence of military personnel is the primary cause of the disharmony. "If there were no soldiers at the border, there would be no problems. But because there are soldiers, there are problems," he says.

Samour refers to the warning alerts as "bad propaganda." But he believes the propaganda is just as bad for the Israeli side as it is for the Palestinians. "The tourists who come to the Holy Land stay in Jerusalem. If they are afraid to come, the Israelis lose. We have 2,000 double rooms, while they have 46,000. Visitors who come to Bethlehem visit the Basilica of the Nativity, buy some handmade merchandise, and return back to the Israelis in Jerusalem."

However, Colonel Aiesh sees the matter as more complicated. He says Israel makes clear it wants the tourists to come to Israel but not the West Bank for two reasons. The first is economic. Aiesh contends that Israel wants to channel all the tourist money to its own coffers. The second reason is political. The economic robustness that the Palestinians would derive from the expected two to four million tourists would give them the confidence and visibility they need to stand up and be counted as a legitimate political entity.

With 37 foreign presidents expected to grace the city in the course of scheduled celebrations, he says the Palestinians are sure to win the hearts and minds of people who would otherwise not know the realities of life in the occupied territories. Already, as a result of the late October clashes, British Foreign Minister Robin Cook has met with Palestinian President Yasser Arafat in Gaza, but canceled his visit to Bethlehem. This represents a setback in gaining global support for future independence for Palestine, Aiesh says, and that setback is a triumph for Israel.

But the installation of a harsher checkpoint is not the only factor in rendering this period a delicate one. The Palestinians are under a multitude of pressures:

  • Israel has failed to release agreed-upon numbers of Palestinian political prisoners.
  • A Palestinian souvenir vendor who sold trinkets on the street near Rachel's Tomb was shot dead by an Israeli soldier after another soldier had called the vendor over to ask for a cigarette. Adding insult to manslaughter, the Israelis then sought to justify the apparently accidental shooting by charging that the vendor had attacked a soldier with a knife. However, eyewitnesses said there was no knife, and in fact the soldier who did the shooting threw down his gun and beat himself on the head.
  • The opening of a "safe passage" linking the Palestinians in the Gaza Strip to those in the West Bank has turned out to be little more than a political ruse.
  • The current widening of Rachel's Tomb, an already block-long holy site visited mostly by religious Jews at the entrance to Bethlehem, is a constant reminder of Israel's power to create facts on the ground before the final status talks are concluded.
  • The continuing demolition of homes, one in Jerusalem recently leaving 24 homeless, brings both Palestinian and Jewish human rights activists together in protest.
  • Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Barak engages in highly publicized gestures of compliance with peace agreements, while Palestinians see the unpublicized breaches. As Barak appears to be dismantling colonies in the occupied West Bank, he is actually removing a handful of trailer homes, many uninhabited, while issuing orders (against international law) for new house construction in the ever-growing, modern, gated communities for Jews on confiscated Palestinian land.
  • And all the while, Bethlehem's splendid hillside overlook has at its focal center the confiscated hill called by Israelis Har Homa. A wide grey swath where the trees have been shaved for a spiraling road has earned it the name "hayyeh," Arabic for snake. This work-in-progress will soon be the Jewish neighborhood severing the last thread connecting the West Bank to Jerusalem, a holy city to Arabs and Jews alike, and the economic nucleus of the entire area.

However, the acting spokesperson for the Israeli Ministry of Tourism, Nitzan Ilan, says there is no deliberate attempt to thwart the influx of tourism to Palestinian territories. In fact there have been meetings between the two sides' tourism ministries to discuss cooperative means of getting tourists comfortably from one place to another. "We think that from the point of view of the tourist," says Ilan, "Jerusalem, Bethlehem and Nazareth [which is within Israel's 1948 borders] are all the same place." So, she said, it is in their interest to accommodate visitors to all the holy cities.

Roxane Assaf is a free-lance writer and video producer living in Bethlehem.