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Welcome to Bethlehem at Christmas, Where Tear Gas Is Clouding Any Festive Cheer

VICE News visited the West Bank's most famous biblical city, where violent clashes between Israeli security forces and Palestinian protesters are keeping tourists away this year.

by Harriet Salem
Dec 23 2015, 4:25pm

Foto di Abed Al Hashlamoun/EPA

It's just days until Christmas, but in Bethlehem there is little sign of festive cheer, as violent street clashes keep tourists away and locals stay at home.

"It's the situation," Issa Giacaman told VICE News, while eyeing the door for potential customers. "People see what is happening on the television and they're scared to come here." 

His shop, a treasure trove of olive wood nativity tableaus, ornate crucifixes, and gaudy orthodox icons, usually does booming business in December as pilgrims flock to the West Bank's most famous biblical town. But this year he's lucky to make one sale a day.

Since early October 19 Israelis have been killed in a wave of stabbing, shooting, and vehicle attacks by Palestinians across Israel and the West Bank. On the other side more than 100 Palestinians have been killed; including 71 alleged attackers and some 30 in clashes with security forces.

A Palestinian protester throws a tear gas canister during clashes with Israeli troops on the outskirts of the West Bank city of Bethlehem in December. (Photo by Abed Al Hashlamoun/EPA)

For the last three months Bethlehem, home to around a quarter of the West Bank's 40,000 Christians, has borne the brunt of weekly confrontations between local youths and Israeli soldiers. Since October the Palestine Red Crescent have treated more than 1,300 cases of gas inhalation, 310 injuries from rubber bullets, and 74 bullet wounds in the town. Medical crews have recorded six fatalities during clashes, most from live fire.

Jacir Palace, the town's largest hotel with some 250 rooms, is on the frontline of much of the violence. Just a few hundred meters from the giant concrete separation wall dividing the West Bank from Israel, the hotel's forecourt has been commandeered as a weekly meeting spot for Palestinian youths readying for confrontation with Israeli soldiers.

Related: Crocodiles, Fake Factories, And Nukes: Investigating Israel's Not-So-Secret Nuclear Program

Around midday on Fridays the hotel staff begin preparing for the weekly hail of tear gas, rocks, and bullets. Johnny Kattan, Jacir Palace's General Manager, knows the drill. Windows are closed in advance and as soon as tear gas canisters are fired he orders staff to pull down the steel shutters at the front of the hotel. 

Guests wanting to come in or out are ushered discreetly through a back door. The strategy has so far proved successful. Kattan reports that there have been "no injuries" among the hotel patrons. "Not even tears from the gas."

Wooden crosses on shelf in a shop on Manger Square. Business usually booms during the Christmas season, but this year few tourists are visiting Bethlehem. (Photo by Harriet Salem/VICE News)

But despite his efforts bookings are still down. The hotel, normally full for the festive season, is only half occupied this year, even after room rates were slashed by some 25 percent. Local business has dried up too. The hotel's swanky bar-restaurant Al Makan — meaning 'The Place' in Arabic — has been closed until further notice and worried customers have canceled venue slots for conferences, weddings, and christenings.

This hotel is no stranger to troubled times, however. During the second intifada, shortly after being renovated, it was forced to close its doors to guests and was taken over by the Israeli army as a military base for several years before reopening in 2005. But this year is the second bad season in a row. Last year Christmas tourism to Bethlehem fell by around half after a bloody summer war between Israel and Hamas, followed by spate of attacks by Palestinians in Jerusalem during the winter.

'After the Islamic State attack on the plane in Egypt and Putin's argument with Turkey even the Russians don't come'

Sitting in the deserted central dining courtyard Kattan says the hotel is now in dire financial straits. "With the reduced room prices we need 60 percent of the rooms filled just to break even, at the moment we are just below that," he told VICE News. "With the current situation the goal is just to keep our head above water, but if there's no improvement by February we'll have to make a decision about letting staff go."

A crowd gathers to watch the Christmas tree lighting in Bethlehem. This year there were no fireworks to accompany the event. (Photo by Abed Al Hashlamoun/EPA)

In another blow to the tourist dependent Bethlehem, the Palestinian Authority has ordered Christmas celebrations in the city to be "toned down" as a mark of respect for the severity of the situation. While an annual Scouts parade of bagpipe marching bands will go ahead on December 24, the decorations adorning the town's streets have been reduced to a couple of central blocks and some festive concerts have been canceled.

Related: Here's Why the Latest Spate of Violence Between Israelis and Palestinians Won't Stop Soon

At the annual lighting of the town's Christmas tree Bethlehem's mayor, Vera Baboun, called the situation in Palestine "critical." Festive fireworks, which normally accompany the event, were banned. "[A] political solution of justice and peace is still a way from the horizon," Baboun told reporters. "From the city of peace that lives no peace we send you messages of peace."

"It's like Christmas has been canceled," said Michel, standing next to his stall of snow globe, magnets, and other trinkets on a side street a few meters from the Church of the Nativity, believed by pilgrims to stand in the place where Jesus was born. "Look there's no one, it's a ghost town."

Christian pilgrims take photos in the "Grotto" area of the Bethlehem Church of the Nativity where Jesus is believed to have been born. (Photo by Jim Hollander/EPA)

But it's not just domestic woes that are turning back the tourists. In Manger Square, tour guides and taxi drivers, gathered beneath a gigantic twinkling Christmas tree, smoke cigarettes and bemoan regional and local conflicts alike.

Issa Abu Daoud has spent more than a decade guiding foreigners around Bethlehem's churches. During boom times he'd lead as many as 10 large groups per day, but this whole season he's netted a grand total of four.

Related: Why Is Hamas Calling for Intifada in the West Bank, But Not in Gaza?

"The situation here, it's bad. The fighting scares the Europeans and the Americans; their governments tell them it's not safe to come here," he told VICE News. "But now after the Islamic State attack on the plane in Egypt and Putin's argument with Turkey even the Russians don't come... They normally tour the region but that's stopped."

An Israeli soldier stands amid a litter of rocks near the separation wall in Bethlehem during clashes with Palestinian youths. (Photo by Harriet Salem/VICE News)

Last month Moscow imposed sanctions on Turkey, including a ban on package tours to the country, amid a diplomatic dispute with Ankara over Syria, and flights from Russia to Egypt were suspended after a homemade bomb brought down a passenger flight carrying Russian holidaymakers over the Sinai desert in October.

"It's a big blow because Russians would come in large groups," said Dauod. "They were good business. Now the only tourists still coming are from Africa and the Far East and they don't spend as much money."

Back at the Jacir Palace a bemused looking group of Japanese tourists order tea, while outside the last few Palestinian youths stand around a pile of burning tires. Despite the mounting woes Kattan is keeping up appearances with a smile on his face. "All we need to solve the problem is a Christmas miracle!" he joked.

Follow Harriet Salem on Twitter: @HarrietSalem

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