Monday, January 24, 2011

Christmas in Bethlehem: Tourism Police not Soldiers

By Avi Issacharof / Bethlehem December 24, 2010

Christmas in Bethlehem. The holiday atmosphere was palpable in every corner this week. The city is decorated to the gills, with Santa mannequins on the streets and lots and lots of tourists. The hotels reported full occupancy and the restaurants vigorously prepared for guests. Some of the finest Middle Eastern singers will be performing tonight and tomorrow in Bethlehem and Sahour, in an attempt to entertain the visitors from all over the world, Israel, and even Gaza.

A group from Russia crowded into the Church of the Nativity to hear an explanation of the differences between the three churches in the compound: Roman Catholic, which is observing the holiday tonight; Greek Orthodox (of which the Russians are also members), which will only be celebrating Christmas on January 7th; and the Armenian Church. Abbot (Father) Spyridon sits in a corner of the Orthodox church. He was born in Bethlehem 60 years ago and has served in the church since 1970. “There’s a good feeling this year,” he says. “More stability and fewer problems. After all, Bethlehem is based on tourism.” Some Palestinian police officers are circling around among the tourists, but according to Abbot Spyridon, their job is not just to protect the visitors. “There are still quite a few problems here,” he explains. He speaks Russian, Greek, English, Arabic and a little Spanish, and has seen a thing or two throughout his life inside and outside the church. During Operation Defensive Shield he was home with his wife and seven children.

-What kind of problems?

“Between the Armenian and Orthodox churches. They each claim ownership. They argue about the status quo. The police protect us and keep the peace. The ones outside the church are the tourism police. The ones inside are supposed to solve the problems that come up here every so often, such as fights. Neither side is allowed to place anything new inside the church, certainly not in the area controlled by the other church. They have a meeting and reach an agreement. If anyone does anything against the agreement, it definitely leads to a fight,” says Spyridon. A few meters away from him one of the Armenian church staff is preparing for the prayer service. “There’s a skirmish here every five days,” he says. “Why? Because of cleaning. We argue about who is going to clean where, and we can’t manage to resolve it.”

-And what about the police?

“They don’t manage to separate them either.”

Nevertheless, besides one-on-one battles inside the church, Bethlehem is largely a Palestinian success story. Law and order are strictly maintained and traffic police are in evidence on every corner. Undercover officers in civilian dress will also be deployed this holiday for the first time, mingling among the crowd and making sure to maintain order. This year a total of 1,450,000 tourists visited the city, comprising a 60% increase over last year (according to Palestinian Ministry of Tourism data). Over the holiday alone some 90,000 guests from abroad will visit the city (and another 38,000 Palestinians from Israel and the territories). Russians are the most highly represented tourists (24%) and are followed by, in descending order: Poles, Italians, Americans, Spaniards and Germans. Six hundred thousand tourists stayed in Bethlehem accommodations this year; again, a 45% increase over 2009.

The Palestinian Tourism minister, Khouloud Daibes, says that the authority was active worldwide this past year to market the tourist sites in Jericho, Bethlehem and other places. “We are currently participating in every major tourism fair everywhere in the world,” she said in a talk with Haaretz. “The number of rooms in the city is expected to rise 50% for next year (from 2,000 rooms to 3,000). The number of tourists to Israel is growing as well, but that doesn’t mean tourists don’t encounter obstacles when entering Bethlehem. Although it has been made somewhat easier, we hope for further measures that will, for example, reduce the waiting time for tourist buses at the border crossings. There’s also room for improvement on the subject of Palestinian tour guides entering Israeli areas – we want free competition.”

On the other side of town, on the outskirts of Beit Jala, preparations are being completed for the March opening of the new industrial area, which is being established under the sponsorship of the French government. Top French companies, such as Renault, France Telecom, Schneider Electric and others, intend to open branches there. Already in the first phase it should provide some 300 jobs in the area, which despite the tourism boom is still suffering from unemployment.

The French Are Coming
Every few weeks a French diplomat visits the site, and it’s highly doubtful that many people in Israel are aware of what she does. President Nicolas Sarkozy dispatched a special envoy to the area, Valerie Hoffenberg, whose job is to handle the economic, cultural, commercial, educational and environmental aspects of the Middle East peace process. But Hoffenberg is far from sounding like yet another European diplomat who immediately charges and attacks Israel’s settlement policy. Her familiarity with the territory is admirable. “Today there are almost no checkpoints inside the West Bank, and we don’t hear the world talking about that,” says Hoffenberg. “A resident of Bethlehem who wanted to get to Ramallah used to have to go through many checkpoints, but they’re no longer there. This is an important message for the international community. True, Israel makes mistakes and has to be criticized for them. But it also has to be praised for positive actions. There aren’t checkpoints and there still aren’t terror attacks. That’s also a message for the Israeli public. I’m not one of those people who think that only economic peace will bring results. However, a change for the better must be effected on the ground, and we already see that change taking place. For instance, the private Palestinian sector is getting stronger – more and more Palestinian companies are being established in the West Bank.”

Hoffenberg says that the industrial area will open in two phases and is expected to stretch over a total of 500 dunams. According to her, 35 companies plan to open branches or representative offices on the site. “It’s going to be a green area that respects the environment,” she told Haaretz. “For us, opening this place is a pilot program. After all, all the other industrial areas planned throughout the West Bank never panned out. We hope that our investment, totaling 10 million Euros, will attract more investors and more companies here.”

“What you Israelis do is much better than what you say. Things have really improved here over the past two years,” remarks Hoffenberg. “There are fewer checkpoints, fewer settlements, and the Palestinian economy is improving. The problem is that not many people in the world know about that. I have to admit that I received the greatest assistance possible. Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu himself approved the use of the road in Area C. The donor countries and of course the Palestinian Authority also mobilized to help out.” According to Hoffenberg, she chose Bethlehem because of its proximity to the border with Israel as well as the trademark. “If a product says ‘Made in Bethlehem,’ then anyone in the world will know where it’s from. It will have an impact.”

No comments:

Post a Comment