The International Writers
TOURISM UNDER THREAT
Little Town of Bethlehem
No matter what
your religious background is, there is no arguing that Bethlehem
is engrained in our psyche as the quaint town where Jesus of Nazareth
was born. I like to learn and embrace all forms of religion and
spirituality, but I must admit I was raised in the Christian Tradition
and as child sang in the Sunday school choir such songs as "Oh
Little Town of Bethlehem" and "Away in a Manger".
On a recent trip to Israel and the Palestinian Territories, I wanted to
make a pilgrimage to Bethlehem, to Manger Square more precisely. Prior
to my departure to Israel, I was cautioned by several people that while
the West Bank is relatively safe, Bethlehem can at times be a bit on the
dangerous side or at best filled with tension. As is often the case in
my adventures, I disregarded warnings and was determined to visit this
After several days in Jerusalem, wandering through the historic and spiritual
sites of Islam, Judaism, and Christianity, I decided to make my journey
to Bethlehem. My first stop was the Arab Bus station across the street
from the Damascus Gate to Old Jerusalem. I was able to locate the bus
to Bethlehem, which only cost 3 sheckles (about 75 cents). The bus battled
through traffic south out of Jerusalem. I was not sure what to expect
when I got to Bethlehem and was shocked when I found out the bus doesnt
exactly go to Bethlehem. The bus stops at a "border crossing".
It looked rather foreboding with a very high cement wall, guard shacks,
and barbed wire fence. It brought back memories of the Berlin Wall! I
entered the border crossing with no problems and crossed into the West
Bank with ease. I did find it ironic as you cross the barbed wire, the
fences, gates, and armed patrol to be greeted by a sign that said "Shalom
Board of Tourism". As I walked through the gate and onto the other
side I was now in the West Bank and in the city of Bethlehem. I was greeted
by political graffiti "Power to Hezbollah" "We are not
Terrorist" "Jesus wept for Jerusalem" "Free Palestine".
But back in Jerusalem
I heard nothing of problems in Bethlehem. I wasnt sure if he was
trying to hustle me or not, but he offered to take me to Manger Square,
show me around, and get me back to the Border Crossing safely in exchange
for 60 sheckles ($15)
being the budget backpacking traveler I wasnt
too keen on the idea but something inside me said, "its probably
in your best interest to take Naif up on his offer".
I walked down the path away from the gates, numerous taxi drivers
positioning themselves for business greeted me. I was offered all
day-guided excursions for 300 shekels. Words cant really explain
the tension in the air but I struck up a conversation with a Palestinian
by the name of Naif. He informed me that not many Americans
had visited Bethlehem in the last 5 years and that it really was
sort of unsafe for me to be wandering alone through the streets
of Bethlehem. He said, "There were problems here yesterday".
As Naif drove toward Manger Square he pointed out Rachels Tomb and
Shepherds Field. As we got closer to Manger Square I became increasingly
worried when I saw masked men running through the streets with their loaded
rifles. It was a scene I had seen numerous times on CNN. Naif explained
that the day before there were some problems and that there was a curfew,
but Naif did not explain to me all the events from the preceding day.
He simply repeated several times with a thick Arabic accent, "the
situation is not good."
Naif first took me
to The Milk Grotto Chapel, a shrine that commemorates the lactation of
the Virgin Mary. My next stop, and primary destination was The Church
of the Nativity, which is one of the worlds oldest functioning churches.
It is built like a citadel over the cave cited by tradition as Jesus
birthplace. Entering the church requires you to stoop down through the
small and short doorway. I then descended steps from the main church area
into an underground chamber filled with caves, one of which is the reputed
site of the birthplace of Jesus. It smashed my image of the stereotypical
wooden framed manger surrounded by hay and farm animals.
Christian Arab town of Bethlehem no longer resembles the cozy Middle
Eastern Village portrayed on Christmas Cards, but even worse, much
of it has been bombed and otherwise damaged in recent conflicts.
On the corner right by Manger Square was a store that had recently
been burned and gutted.
After visiting the Church of the Nativity, I took a brief walk to the
center of Manger Square and could not help but notice the ironic Bethlehem
Peace Center. In spite of intolerance and tension in the region, I admired
and respected this edifice based upon its bold statement and mission "The
Center shall promote and enhance peace, democracy, religious tolerance
and diversity," in the face of many hurdles.
After my exploration of two legendary Christian pilgrimage sites, I figured
it was time to head back to the safe haven of Jerusalem. Naif drove me
safely back to the border crossing and on our drive back to the border
crossing explained the economic situation of his family, the discrimination
of the Palestinian People, and the general malaise of the people of Bethlehem.
"We do not say that it is an Islamic government, or a Hamas government,"
Naif said. "It is a Palestinian government that has been elected
by Palestinian people. We are all one people." The dwindling tourist
numbers, Israeli closures and the severe limits on Palestinian work permits
have sent unemployment in Bethlehem soaring to 65 percent, Naif said.
The fiscal crisis has left the Bethlehem municipality unable to pay employees'
salaries for over three months.
I then passed the graffiti walls, this time with a different feeling
so much of fear but now appreciation and a bit more understanding. I crossed
back into the Israeli side with a better understanding of the complexities
of what we Americans so often see on the news as a rather black and white
issue and realizing that the situation is more complex and deeper than
to say this side is right or that side is wrong. Again, I was proven that
traveling off the beaten path or to a "less desirable" place
truly expanded my horizons.
Upon arrival back to Jerusalem, I went to an internet café which
was my usual way of ending each day of travel writing friends and families
back home of my adventures and assuring them I was safe. As I checked
my emails, a dear friend of mine in Minneapolis had sent me a warning
not to go to Bethlehem. They attached an article from a reputable news
source with the headlines stating: "Israeli Siege in Bethlehem At
about 2:00pm in the afternoon of Monday over 100 Israeli soldiers entered
the town of Bethlehem, south of Jerusalem and laid siege on a house believed
to be occupied by Shareef Abu Hadeed, suspected by the Israeli authorities
of being an Islamic Jihadist." I had no idea that all this had happened
just 24 hours before I was there except for the few things that Naif had
alluded to. While it made the headlines in the US, I had no idea that
this happened a few miles south of where I was staying in Jerusalem. I
am glad I was unaware of the situation, as I may not have made the journey.
While not as serious as the siege of the Church of the Nativity in 2002,
it was enough to put my nerves on edge.
Bethlehem has attracted tens of thousands of pilgrims over the Christmas
Holidays each year. Though with recent tensions the turn out in recent
years has barely reached 10,000 pilgrims. Perhaps when tolerance, patience
and understanding prevail, and the mission of the Bethlehem Peace Center
is realized, a star will once again shine brightly over Bethlehem.
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