Bittersweet Christmas for West Bank’s Bethlehem Residents

Officials say all 34 hotels in the town are fully booked for the Christmas season, but many families of Palestinian prisoners decorated a Christmas tree with images of their relatives.

Instead of lights and ornaments, families of Palestinian prisoners held in Israeli jails decorated a Christmas tree with images of their relatives in the West Bank town of Bethlehem on Saturday.

Thousands of Palestinians are being detained in Israeli prisons.

“This is a letter from the country of Jesus, from a country of peace, this is for the entire world, the Pope and all the people aspiring for peace, to help the Palestinian people who are on a hunger strike in the Israeli jails,” said Issa Qarage, Palestinian Minister of Prisoners Affairs.

Former Israeli soldier Gilad Schalit, who was held captive for several years by Gaza militants, was freed in 2011 for over 1,000 Palestinian prisoners, many who were involved in deadly attacks.

The Christmas season is the mainstay of Bethlehem’s economy.
When tourism lags because of politics or violence, the town lurches into depression.

Bethlehem officials said all 34 hotels in the town are fully booked for the Christmas season, including 13 new ones built this year.

The United Nations General Assembly’s vote last month to upgrade the Palestinians’ status to that of a non-member observer state set off celebrations across the West Bank.

The move changed little on the ground, with Israel opposing the U.N. recognition bid and saying it bypassed peace negotiations aimed at establishing a state.

Meanwhile, three days before Christmas, Christian and Muslim representatives from Jerusalem sung Christmas carols and distributed chocolate, as they passed through the streets on Saturday dressed in Santa Claus costumes.

“This evening is all about celebrating Christmas. It’s all about the residents of Jerusalem coming together,” said resident Mustafa Alami.

The Israeli Tourism Ministry said it expects 75,000 tourists to arrive for Christmas this year, citing last month's clash between Israel and Palestinian militants in Gaza as a reason for the drop.

It said there was a 12 percent decrease overall in incoming tourism to Israel last month.

Foreign tourists heading to Bethlehem must pass through Israel or the Israel-controlled border crossing from Jordan.

Overall, there are only about 50,000 Christians in the West Bank, less than 3 percent of the population, the result of a lower birthrate and increased emigration.

Bethlehem’s Christians make up only a third of the town’s residents, down from 75 percent a few decades ago.