Welcome to Bethlehem, Where 'Teargas Has Become Our Perfume'

Wave of violence takes its toll on usually thriving tourist hub of the West Bank, where many Palestinians hope the third intifada will never materialize.

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Brett Kline

BETHLEHEM, West Bank – The luxury cars and tour buses that usually line the street in front of the Intercontinental Hotel were replaced Friday afternoon by burning garbage bins and smoking tires.

Groups of boys with sling shots, their faces covered by kaffiyehs, were waiting to charge the Israeli Border Police parked in front of Rachel’s Tomb at the far end of the street, next to the separation barrier. Stones flew, shots were fired and tear gas filled the air with a bitter smell.

And then, on Saturday, the “shebab” – the teenage boys – were gone, the street cleaned of burning refuse and occasional tour buses were back in front of the hotel, also known as the Jacir Palace after its original early 20th-century owners, as if nothing had happened a day earlier.

Welcome to Bethlehem.

In this center of tourism and thus the most international of West Bank cities, locals like to describe the frequent clashes at the flash point entrance to the town as “war games” played by teenagers. But the clashes, along with the broader wave of violence that is sweeping over Palestinians and Israelis, have already started to take their toll on the fragile local economy.

The spacious lobby of the hotel, no doubt the most classically beautiful of hotels here, with its broad, sweeping stones arches and rounded windows, huge open spaces and swimming pool, has a lot of empty tables.

“The tear gas has become our perfume,” a waiter jokes with visitors. “We wear it on Fridays. But the lounge is mostly empty. We hope this will end soon.”

A local resident touring the city, Samir, comments: “here, the young boys are angry and have nothing to do, so they fight the police guarding Rachel’s Tomb. It is a deadly game. But all these knifings and car rammings elsewhere are wrong. This is no way to get a state of Palestine out of Netanyahu. Now people on both sides are afraid and angry.”

Palestinian anger is driven firstly by their continued belief, despite repeated denials by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and other officials, that Israel wants to change the status quo on the Temple Mount, known to Muslims as the Noble Sanctuary. Many here are also convinced that at a large number of the Palestinians killed in stabbing attacks did not have knives or had knives planted on them by police or soldiers.

Barely two kilometers down the road, the Bethlehem market is packed with people, but the regular foreign visitors are nowhere to be seen. One young man selling frozen chickens in his brother’s shop says: “I am sure most people shot did not have knives, and I am angry about this.”

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Brett Kline

The narrow market road winds downhill into Nativity Square, where occasional groups of tourists are entering the church that marks the spot where Christians believe Jesus was born. A few tour buses are parked on Nativity Street, but fewer than usual.

On the main thoroughfare, Quds al Khalil street, in one bright, clean restaurant, take-away business for appetizing rotisserie chickens and salads is brisk, but there are few sit-down customers.

“Business is down because few people are coming from Hebron and Jerusalem,” says the manager, Thaer. The clashes between youths and soldiers “scare people away, and I do understand why, but it really is a case of war games for teenagers for now.”

Thaer, who like most people interviewed for this article declined to have his last name printed, admits it all feels useless.

“On one hand, I am happy the Israelis now feel the fear that we always feel at the checkpoints,” he says with a grin, “but I am sure we will get nothing from this violence. Now Israelis, especially the soldiers, feel that all Palestinians are violence-loving terrorists. They are wrong.

“Me, the last time I got a pass for Ramadan to enter Israel, I went and slept and drank wine with an Israeli girlfriend for three days. You would do the same, right?” he asks a Haaretz reporter.

Some seven kilometers south of Bethlehem, Route 60 runs into the Gush Etzion roundabout. Here, there have been several stabbing attacks by Palestinians and subsequent shootings of the attackers by Israeli soldiers.

There are no Palestinians at the junction and at the nearby supermarket, usually frequented by people from both sides, the few shoppers are all Israeli Jews.

“Both Palestinian Muslims and Christians are afraid to come shopping,” says one female cashier from Bethlehem, “and in any case, no more cars with Palestinian plates can enter the parking lot. The only exceptions are us employees.”

Many Palestinians have yellow Israeli plates, but they are also staying away, she adds.

“I know people are frustrated here because almost the only things the Israeli government lets us do is eat and use the toilet,” says a colleague from Hebron, Omar. “But this violence has got to stop. It is a disaster for all of us on both sides.”

In the Deheisheh refugee camp, Hamadah, a construction foreman working in the Betar Ilit settlement, is furious. He has just been informed that following the attempted stabbing of a soldier at the entrance to the settlement by a 22-year-old mother of two from Husan village across the road, work has been suspended indefinitely. And residents of Husan, home to thriving construction material depots and auto repair shops, cannot leave the village.

“What was she thinking,” he fumes, referring to the stabber. “Who the hell is she? Yes, this is collective punishment, but what do you expect from this Israeli government? The woman is being fed in hospital. But how will I feed my family?”