Bethlehem prepares for Christmas

Pierbattista Pizzaballa, apostolic administrator of the Latin Patriarchate of Jerusalem, kisses the head of an elderly Palestinian man in Bethlehem. (AFP)
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Updated 25 December 2019

Bethlehem prepares for Christmas

  • Pilgrimage route known as Star Street is being renovated in the hope that it will return to its former glory

BETHLEHEM: Many Christians in Palestine like to celebrate Christmas by visiting the town of Bethlehem, where Jesus Christ was born.

Every year, hundreds of thousands of pilgrims cover the region, also visiting Nazareth and Jerusalem.

Najwan Saifi and her sister and mother visit Bethlehem “almost every year” at Christmas.

“We come to this city, spend a day or two in a hotel and enjoy the atmosphere, the wonderful celebrations, away from the daily pressures of life and work,” Saifi said. 

“Sometimes I feel sad that not all Palestinians can come to Bethlehem. There are thousands of people who want to visit, but the barriers and the wall remain, preventing many people. I hope the occupation will one day disappear,” She added

In Bethlehem the pilgrimage route known as Star Street is being renovated in the hope that it will return to its former glory: A bustling thoroughfare of historical importance.

Downtown Bethlehem, the commercial heart, is mostly bypassed in favor of the more well-known ancient site: The church built on top of the grotto where Christ was born.

“We are expecting 1.4 million tourists,” said Anton Salman, the mayor of Bethlehem, adding that he could only go on figures from organized groups, and that the number could be much higher. 

That estimate would still represent a near 20 percent increase from 12 months ago in any event. “Things are going up. This year is better than 2018, and 2018 was better than 2017. It is a continuous increase.”

Israel’s settlements in the West Bank and its separation wall, which divides Bethlehem from Jerusalem, have restricted access to the city and devastated the local economy.

Twenty-three Israeli settlements take up 21 square km of the Bethlehem area, hosting 165,000 Israeli settlers. 

Before Christmas Eve, Manger Square in Bethlehem, which the mayor’s office overlooks, is abuzz with tourists taking selfies by the newly lit tree erected at its center by the municipality.

Fadi Kattan, a Palestinian chef who runs Hosh Al-Syrian guesthouse, believes tourism should extend beyond the Christmas season and that changes should be made to entice visitors to stay in Bethlehem during the rest of the year.

“Tourists usually spend a few hours in Bethlehem — that is not enough for the city’s economy. The real impact would be if they stayed in the hotels and spent a long time,” Kattan said. 

As for gift shop owner Saad Sabbagh, the Christmas season is a working season for Bethlehem’s residents, and an opportunity for its economy to recover.

“There are many difficulties, but we are thinking about this season, working and receiving tourists from all over the world. There is already an increase this year in the number of tourists, and work is increasing,” Sabbagh said 

Five new hotels are being built and some existing hotels are expanding. The town has even extended the opening hours of the Church of the Nativity. The building has undergone extensive restorations since 2013 to repair its leaky roof, tattered windows and covered mosaics.

The region’s Christians were excited earlier in the year, on Nov. 29, when a religious relic sent to Rome in the seventh century, supposedly a fragment of Christ’s manger, was returned to the Holy Land after nearly 1,400 years by Pope Francis. It is now on permanent display at the church. 

Visits to Bethlehem during the holidays are not confined to Christians, with thousands of Muslim Palestinians from the West Bank and Israel also expected over the period.

Ahmad Najib, on holiday with his wife and two children, said: “The atmosphere of Christmas is beautiful, and in Bethlehem it is the most beautiful, especially on Christmas Eve. I am here with my family to enjoy taking pictures, and share with Christians their holidays just as they share ours.”


Lebanon sets out its claim in maritime border talks

Updated 29 October 2020

Lebanon sets out its claim in maritime border talks

  • A military source told Arab News: “The Lebanese side considers that Israel, through the border line it drew for itself, is eating into huge areas of Lebanese economic waters.”

BEIRUT: Lebanese negotiators laid out their claim to maritime territory on Wednesday as they began a second round of talks with Israel over their disputed sea border.
The contested zone in the Mediterranean is an estimated 860 square kilometers known as Block 9, which is rich in oil and gas. Future negotiations will also tackle the countries’ land border.
Wednesday’s meeting took place at the headquarters of the UN Interim Force in Lebanon (UNIFIL) amid tight security. An assistant of the UN special coordinator for Lebanon chaired the session, and the US Ambassador to Algeria, John Desrocher, was the mediator.
A military source told Arab News: “The Lebanese side considers that Israel, through the border line it drew for itself, is eating into huge areas of Lebanese economic waters.”
The Lebanese delegation produced maps and documents to support their claim to the disputed waters.
In indirect talks between Lebanon and Israel in 2012, US diplomat Frederick Hoff proposed “a middle line for the maritime borders, whereby Lebanon would get 58 percent of the disputed area and Israel would be given the remaining 42 percent, which translates to 500 square kilometers for Lebanon and 300 square kilometers for Israel.”
On the eve of Wednesday’s meeting, Lebanese and Israeli officials met to discuss a framework to resolve the conflict through the implementation of UN Resolution 1701.
UNIFIL Commander Maj. Gen. Stefano Del Col praised the “constructive role that both parties played in calming tensions along the Blue Line” and stressed the necessity of “taking proactive measures and making a change in the prevailing dynamics regarding tension and escalation.”