Bethlehem Fears Christmas in Peril as Israel Bars Tourists From Overnight Stays

Palestinian officials are concerned over COVID restrictions barring tourists from spending the night in the city, just before the holiday season. Israeli officials say talks are underway to permit overnight stays

Jack Khoury
Jack Khoury
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File photo: Christmas celebrations in Bethlehem.
File photo: Christmas celebrations in Bethlehem. Credit: Emil Salman
Jack Khoury
Jack Khoury

Israel’s coronavirus policies will not permit foreign tourists to stay overnight in Bethlehem in November, and the restriction has enraged municipal officials in the Palestinian city, who are concerned about its implications in the run-up to the Christmas season.

Sources in the Israeli Health Ministry explained that visits by foreign tourists, who generally cross into the West Bank city from Israel, will be allowed only where there is compliance with Israel’s so-called green passport regulations. These are not in force in Bethlehem or anywhere else in the Palestinian Authority.

A staffer at the Israeli Tourism Ministry issued a notice to travel agents informing them that the arrival of foreign tourist groups in Bethlehem is part of a pilot program that does not include overnight stays in the city. “Requests that include overnight stays in Bethlehem will not be approved,” the notice states. The ministry said it was following directives from the Israeli Health Ministry.

Foreign tourists’ visits to Bethlehem will be limited to just several hours. City officials said that over the past two weeks, they have also received complaints from travel agents abroad on the issue. The Israeli officials said the matter is currently being addressed with Bethlehem’s city hall.

A general view of Bethlehem, last year. Credit: Mahmoud Illean/AP

Bethlehem Mayor Anton Salman expressed his anger over the decision, calling it arbitrary and unrelated to the foreign visitors’ health or the prevailing incidence of COVID-19 infections. The mayor sent letters critical of the Israeli policy to tourism ministries around the world, including countries from which groups of tourists and religious pilgrims visit the city.

Preparations are currently underway in the city for the Christmas season, particularly from Christmas Eve on December 24 though the end of January. This period is generally the peak of Bethlehem’s tourist season and hotels in the city are usually at capacity. But it was also in Bethlehem that the Palestinian Authority discovered its first coronavirus case, among a group of foreign tourists staying in a hotel.

Responding to the criticism, the official Israeli entity dealing with educating the public on the pandemic said that a foreign tourism plan involving separate “capsules” was carefully planned to provide foreign tourists with a safe stay in Israel. “In the first stage, only stays in places operating according to the green passport have been approved. The request by tourism officials in Bethlehem has been passed along to professional staff and discussions among various officials are currently taking place to consider the conditions and timing in which it will be possible to permit foreign tourists to stay in the territory of the Palestinian Authority,” it stated.

During the pandemic period, business at hotels in Bethlehem and in adjoining towns, including Beit Jala and Beit Sahour, has come to a virtual standstill. Many businesses and hotels in the area have shut down while others scaled back their operations considerably, catering mainly to Israeli Arab tourists, Palestinian officials said.

Salman said that hope had been that the coming months would somewhat compensate for the losses of the past year and a half, but the announcement from the Israeli Tourism Ministry simply compounded the sense of anger and frustration. There is no logic to the policy, he claimed.

“What is the difference between a stay of a few hours in the city and staying overnight at a hotel?” he asked. “We also know how to be meticulous with the safety rules. The fact that Israel controls the [border crossings into the West Bank] doesn’t give it authority to decide who stays overnight here and who visits Bethlehem and how. It’s another blatant example of colonialism and occupation. We will be in touch with the international community to reject this directive out of hand.”

He added that in Bethlehem, there is care in observing the Health Ministry guidelines, including requiring proof of vaccination or recovery from the coronavirus, and hotels are also being asked to operate based on the guidelines.

Officials from the Palestinian Authority, including those in President Mahmoud Abbas’ office, expressed disappointment at the Israeli policy. Last week Health Minister Nitzan Horowitz and Regional Cooperation Minister Esawi Freige visited the Palestinian president’s headquarters in Ramallah. In a widely covered meeting with Abbas, they discussed the importance of cooperation and support for the Palestinian Authority.

“If there is no diplomatic process, at least they shouldn’t bury the first vestiges of the tourism recovery,” a senior PA official said. “Bethlehem survives on tourism, mainly religious tourism. The directive preventing pilgrims from staying overnight there is a death sentence for anyone who has still managed to keep their head above water.”

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