Israel's barrier has effectively isolated Bethlehem from the rest of West Bank [GETTY]

A normally empty Manger Square was filled beyond capacity on Christmas day as thousands of Palestinians, dignitaries and foreigners descended on the little town of Bethlehem to welcome Michel Sabah the Latin Patriarch of Jerusalem.

The Patriarch's yearly visit was meant to kick off Christmas festivities but this year, as in others, the spirit of the festive season is uniquely intertwined with the fate of all Palestinians, who say the city has suffered from years of Israeli occupation.

And like previous years, despite a boost in tourism, celebrations in Bethlehem have been marred by a poor economic and security situation.

While Bethlehem is the traditional birthplace of Jesus Christ atop a hill just 10km away from Jerusalem, the site of Christ's crucifixion, a 10-meter high concrete wall put up by Israel and several military checkpoints keep the two cities very much apart.

Fairy tale Christmas

It is such barriers and restrictions borne of Israeli occupation that has made Christmas bittersweet for Palestinians.

Maxim Sansour, founding board member of Open Bethlehem, an international campaign to address the state of emergency facing Bethlehem, said the city's greatest problems largely go unaddressed every Christmas.

He said: "Christmas comes and goes, but our problems remain."

Issues of growing Israeli settlements which lie immediately on the border of Bethlehem and demolitions of Palestinian homes on the outskirts of the city have made life difficult for Palestinians.

Sansour says Bethlehem will always continue to struggle as long as such Palestinian issues of statehood, economic viability and sustenance under occupation remain unaddressed.

Sansour also believes that visitors and pilgrims who do come show support but at the same time many are also in Bethlehem as part of "the fairy-tale story of Christmas".

Father Garret Edmonds, a Franciscan monk from California who works with pilgrim groups in Palestine and is spending his fifth Christmas in Bethlehem, said: "There are moments of hope but then everything returns to the status quo. It goes on and off like this all the time."

Father Edmonds also highlighted the increasing erosion of the Church and the increasing number of Christians choosing to emigrate from in Palestine.

"It's important to have a viable, living Church, but if things continue the way they are in 25 years there might not be a living church. Bethlehem could become one giant museum," he said.

Life under occupation

In 2006, Open Bethlehem released the results of a questionnaire which examined the reasons behind the high rate of Christian emigration from Bethlehem.

Of 2000 Palestinians surveyed in Bethlehem, 76 per cent said Israeli occupation was the main reason for leaving. 

Sixteen per cent of the Christians in the city said they are in the process of emigrating, compared to eight per cent of the Muslims.

Many Palestinians also said that foreigners and pilgrims coming to Bethlehem do not experience daily life under occupation.

Palestinians who have Israeli permission to travel between Bethlehem and the West Bank say they are subjected to fingerprint and document scanning, full body searches, and long waits before they are let through.

Some are not even allowed to visit friends and family simply because they live on the wrong side of the wall or in some cases the soldier manning a checkpoint might not feel like letting them through.

Brother Jack Curran, Vice President of Development for Bethlehem University, said: "I have colleagues who haven't been to Jerusalem in years and I can come and go as freely as I want. I feel ashamed of the privilege I have and it's easy to take for granted, I always have to remember that."

"But it is also a privilege that the Palestinians deserve."

Brother Curran, a member of the Lasallian order, felt that Christmas in Bethlehem is not truly reflected because of what he says are the injustices being heaped upon the Palestinians daily.

"The story can't be told without looking seriously at these things," he said.

"Without foreigners," Curran explained, "it would also be a lot worse. We must act as the witnesses and truth tellers, but not just once a year."

Sustain support

Thousands flocked to Bethlehem in hopes
of a better Christmas this year [AFP]

Christmas generates a great deal of positive media attention for both Bethlehem and Palestine every year. It is a chance for the world to show the Palestinians some sympathy and solidarity but Sansour said that it never carries on.

"We love good feelings and the Palestinian people deeply appreciate the show of support, but it must be a sustained kind of support."

Bethlehem is a small town; according to the Palestinian Central bureau of Statistics its population in 2006 stood just shy of 30000, and has a very small and localized economy which is dominated by the tourist industry.

According to Open Bethlehem, tourism accounts for 65 per cent of Bethlehem's economy. In November, 80,000 visitors arrived in the city. This was boosted by a further 20,000 in the days leading to Christmas.

Sansour said that while tourism represents a significant portion of Bethlehem's economy many of the tourist operators are Israeli which means that most of the tourists who do come stay for only a short time and promptly return to Jerusalem.
 
"They come here, take their Disneyland photos and drink some tea from a local shop and go back to Jerusalem," Sansour said.

"Maybe they'll stop by and buy some wood carvings from a shop where the Israeli operators get a commission, but that's about it," he added.

Christmas surge

Most of Bethlehem's local businessmen wait all year just for the Christmas season to come in hopes of boosting their incomes and providing for their families.

It's not surprising given that the poverty rate stands at 60 per cent while unemployment stands at 55 per cent, a slight increase from last year but not overly significant according to George Saadeh, Bethlehem's deputy mayor.

Abed Ibrahim, who works at a sweets shop, said: "Christmas [is] the only time of the year that anyone makes any money."

"It's good for now. But next year it will be bad again until the next Christmas. Nothing will change," he said

Ibrahim added: "Fast dollars won't solve our business problems."

Ameer Jaber, who operates a stall selling boiled corn and roasted peanuts, feels the Palestinians need the kind of media exposure they received for Christmas year-round and not just in Bethlehem, but all over Palestine.

He said: "You foreigners come and help us, but then you leave when you have your pictures and reports, but we're still here and you'll have the same story next year unless we get your help."

Source: Al Jazeera