A towering wall of gray concrete slabs, 30 feet high, cuts across what was once the main road into this town from Jerusalem. Just inside the barrier, past a spanking new Israeli security terminal, a once-bustling neighborhood has become a ghost town.
Shops are shuttered or empty, and the streets deserted. A sign carries the name of an abandoned restaurant. "Memories," it says. Another sign near an empty shell says, "Border Cafeteria."
After more than five years of violent conflict, the barrier separating Bethlehem from Jerusalem has been completed and the Palestinian town revered by Christians as the birthplace of Jesus is preparing to celebrate Christmas behind a wall.
Israel says the wall is meant to keep out suicide bombers, but inside Bethlehem the view is different.
"It is turning the city into a big prison for its citizens," said Mayor Victor Batarseh. "The whole area (near the wall) is like a ghetto."
In a Christmas message last week, Batarseh urged tourists to come to Bethlehem "by the hundreds and thousands to morally break down the racist wall and checkpoints" maintained by the Israelis around the city.
New focus of controversy
A focus of international attention during the holiday season, Bethlehem has been a flash point during the conflict between Israelis and Palestinians. Israeli forces besieged militants holed up in Bethlehem's Church of the Nativity during a West Bank incursion in 2002, and gunmen and protesters often clashed with Israeli troops guarding the Jewish shrine of Rachel's Tomb on the northern outskirts of town.
The domed tomb, venerated as the burial place of the biblical matriarch Rachel, has been encased by the Israelis in a fortified compound, protected by tall concrete barriers that divide the main street into town and hem in adjacent Palestinian homes. Jewish worshipers are ferried in by armored bus.
It is less than a 10-minute drive from Bethlehem to Jerusalem, but Palestinians are barred from making the trip unless they have special Israeli permits allowing them to leave the West Bank. Yet Israel says it will facilitate Christmas visits to Bethlehem by local and foreign pilgrims, allowing tourist buses free access and ensuring speedy security checks on the way out.
The new Israeli terminal in the wall is the latest focus of controversy.
Israeli officials say the facility, where tourists and local travelers are subjected to security and identity checks, is meant to make movement more efficient. But Palestinian officials say that the terminal has caused delays and is an attempt to create a de facto border crossing, separating the Arab areas of Jerusalem from Bethlehem and the rest of the West Bank.
Yet away from the walled-off outskirts of town, this holiday season in Bethlehem is less grim than in recent Christmases.
Since the declaration of a cease-fire last February, violence has dropped sharply, tourist visits are on the increase and hotel occupancy is showing modest improvement. New decorations are strung over the streets leading to Manger Square and the Church of the Nativity, built over the grotto venerated by Christians as the place where Jesus was born.
Hotels damaged in the fighting have been refurbished and reopened, most notably the graceful Jacir Palace InterContinental, whose rooms were once commandeered by Israeli troops fighting gunmen in the area. Now a Christmas tree greets visitors in the lobby, a fountain gurgles in a courtyard restaurant and the hotel is offering special rates for the holidays in an attempt to revive business.
Jobless rate increases
Figures kept by the Bethlehem Municipality show a rebound in tourist visits. After 857,000 tourists arrived in the millennium year of 2000, visitors dropped to an estimated 15,000 during 2002, at the height of fighting. But the numbers have climbed steadily since, reaching 100,000 in 2004 and 252,000 so far this year.
About 30,000 visitors are expected this Christmas compared to 18,000 who came last year.
Yet the Jacir Palace, like other hotels, is still mostly empty, a sign of the lingering economic malaise left by the violence. Tourism was the mainstay of the local economy, and travel restrictions imposed by Israel after Palestinian attacks have denied local laborers access to jobs in Jerusalem and elsewhere in Israel. Unemployment levels have reached 60 percent, according to the mayor.
On Tuesday, gunmen from the Al Aqsa Martyrs Brigade, the armed wing of the Fatah political faction, took over city hall, demanding jobs from within the Palestinian security forces and increases in government aid. The gunmen left after Bethlehem's governor promised to address the money woes.
The deteriorating economy has led to a steady exodus of the city's Christian residents, once a majority and now estimated at about 35 percent of the total population of 30,000. The Christian Palestinians, many with relatives abroad and greater economic resources, have emigrated at a more rapid rate than Muslims.
At his variety store where he sells Christmas decorations, Victor Hosh, 40, said that few shoppers had stopped in despite the approaching holiday. "People have no money to spend, and at most they buy something cheap and simple," he said.
At the Green Land garden supply shop near the Israeli wall, Marwan Najjar 50, said business was down to a fraction of what it once was. In quieter times, before the outbreak of the Palestinian uprising in 2001, the main road into Bethlehem was a busy thoroughfare, with many visitors from Jerusalem, both Palestinian and Israeli, who would shop at the local stores.
Getting priorities straight
Now Green Land is sandwiched between the Israeli barrier and army outposts around Rachel's Tomb, the only shop left open on the road that is blocked and deserted.
"Nobody can come from Jerusalem, and people in Bethlehem are afraid to reach this area," Najjar said. "Israeli troops pass from here, and sometimes they stop people."
Mahmoud Nustas, 32, who lives nearby, can only get to his house by driving a narrow paved path near a wall of concrete separating the home from Rachel's Tomb.
Nustas said that the Israeli barrier looping into the outskirts of Bethlehem is "an attempt to demarcate a border," not a security measure.
But Shlomo Dror, a spokesman for the Israeli Defense Ministry department responsible for the West Bank, said that the wall was a necessary evil brought about by bombings and other Palestinian attacks in Israel.
"It is not pleasant to look at that wall, but on the other hand it saves lives," Dror says. "If the choice is between quality of life and saving lives, saving lives comes first."