Dec 17, 2008

Merry Christmas In Palestinian Bethlehem

By Chuck Missler

While the shaky truce between Israel and Hamas disintegrates through rocket fire and strict border control, the much calmer West Bank looks forward to a peaceful Christmas, especially in Bethlehem.

It has been a long time since Bethlehem has had a truly pleasant Christmas. Under Palestinian control just outside the wall of Jerusalem, Bethlehem has more often been the site of bombings than peace-on-earth. Tourists have been frightened away by Palestinian violence and Israeli travel restrictions during the past eight years of unrest.

Things are finally calming down in the West Bank, at least enough for pilgrims to feel safer. Thousands are making their way to celebrate Christ's birth in the very town where the shepherds found him wrapped in swaddling clothes in a manger so many centuries ago. All of Bethlehem's 19 hotels are booked through to January and visitors are filling Manger Square and the Church of the Nativity.

According to Palestinian officials, the West Bank has had more than 1.3 million tourists this year, double the number who visited last year, and the boom has created 12,000 new jobs.

Mayor Victor Batarseh is encouraged. "Calm and an increase in tourism will create more job opportunities and encourage families to stay in the city," says Batarseh, who is a Christian himself. In the 1950s, 90 percent of Bethlehem was Christian. Now, according to officials, only 40 percent of the town's 32,000 residents are Christian because violence has driven so many away.

While the majority of Palestinians are Muslim, there is an appreciation of the economic advantage to maintaining calm and celebrating Christmas. Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas will light a large cypress Christmas tree in Manger Square, and 1,500 Palestinian security forces will be deployed to keep the peace.

Meanwhile, Christmas looks a bit more dismal in the Gaza Strip. Militants from Islamic Jihad have continued to fire rockets at Israel, and Israel has retaliated with an air raid. Israel's strict blockade has prevented all but some basic food and supplies to pass through into the Strip.

Israel has expressed a willingness to continue with a truce if the attacks from Gaza stop. Defense Minister Ehud Barak said on Tuesday, "Calm will be answered by calm, but if the conditions force us to respond, we will respond at the time and place we deem right."

Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas has expressed his interest in a continued truce as well. He said, "We urged all parties to maintain it as its end would worsen the suffering of our people." Abbas only has control in the West Bank. The militant anti-Israel group Hamas has controlled Gaza since June 2007.

Hamas, on the other hand, is not serious about peace. A statement said, "The truce with the enemy has not enabled the realization of our goals and represents a threat against the interests of our people."

Israel's dismantling Jewish settlements in Gaza and pulling out in 2005 has not brought peace with Palestinians in the Strip. While the UN criticizes Israel for the blockade on Gaza Strip, the blame should be on those militants who insist on firing rockets and battling the very existence of Israel. Palestinians in the West Bank have found improved conditions when working to cooperate with Israeli officials. Gaza could find the same health and improved economic conditions if the people as a whole put aside their hatred of Israel, stopped trying to destroy the Jewish state, and settled for a peaceful coexistence.

Related Links

In Jesus' Town, Christmas Looking Cheerful Again - AP
Israel Rocketed From Gaza As Truce Nears End - AFP
UN Envoy Who Compared Israel to Nazis Denied Entry - Arutz Sheva
Strategic Trend: The Struggle For Jerusalem - Koinonia House