Looking for a new getaway? Why not try Bethlehem
"How do I get to the Intercontinental Hotel?" I asked an elderly man sitting in the door of a grocery store in the town of Beit Jala. "You must be from the north," he replied with a grin, hinting heavily that I was not the first person to ask him that morning. "Keep going straight until the light and then take a left, you'll find a big building that looks like a palace, it's there. The separation fence will also be in front of you," he told me. Eyeing the press sticker on the front of my windshield he added, "How about writing about good stuff? Tourists are always good for the city."
The drive from Beit Jala to the hotel at the entrance to Bethlehem, located a few meters from the Rachel's Tomb compound, takes me through broad and relatively clean streets, even by the standards of Arab towns in Israel. On entering the city you run into a mini-traffic jam, which is soon relieved by Palestinian police officers equipped with whistles. Practically every second car bears Israeli license plates, some crammed with entire families coming to spend a weekend in Bethlehem. The streets radiate a positive, non-threatening atmosphere, with no sign of the masked armed men that characterized images from the intifada years. Even the graffiti slogans on fences and walls have all but disappeared. Any question to locals is gladly met with a detailed response. The driver next to you may well volunteer to lead you so you don't get lost.
Bethlehem's new-found order and security have translated into more tourism, with an emphasis on boosting domestic tourism in the summer instead of just its traditional Christmas and holidays business. It can be said categorically that Bethlehem today provides a weekend getaway for hundreds of Arab families from the Galilee. Some even chose to spend their brief summer break in the Palestinian city.
"Bethlehem has a special ambience," says Wissam Kahouji, who came for the weekend with his wife and three daughters from the Galilee village of Fassuta. "You can come here with the family for a restful and quiet weekend, visit the Church of the Nativity and other holy Christian sites."
Bethlehem boasts several hotels that underwent impressive renovation and development in recent years, including the swanky 240-room Jacir Palace Inter-Continental, originally built by French architects in 1910 and now the venue for conferences and international gatherings organized by the Palestinian Authority.
Visiting Bethlehem requires passing through checkpoints, of course, but access is not too inconvenient if you go through Beit Jala, rather than the checkpoint adjacent to Rachel's Tomb. Take the Tunnel Road to the Beit Shemesh-Gush Etzion intersection, make a U-turn, and within minutes you're in Beit Jalla. From there it's another country.