The Israeli occupation forces are hijacking the spirit of Christmas in the occupied West Bank, restricting tourists’ movement and portraying Bethlehem as unsafe war zone.
"When tourists see the wall, they think they are going into a war zone," Adnan Suboh, who owns a souvenir shop in Bethlehem market, told the Daily Telegraph on Wednesday, December 23, referring to the Israeli separation wall.
Tourists trying to enter Bethlehem to visit the Nativity church, built on the site where Jesus is said to have been born, are faced with crippling Israeli restrictions.
This includes the Israeli separation wall, a 700km-long mix of electronic fences, concrete walls, trenches, and closed military roads, as well as a series of checkpoints manned by armed soldiers.
Palestinian traders and hoteliers say this is preventing them from benefiting from the expected record number of 1.4 visitors during the Christmas season.
Bethlehem’s top hotels expect only 30 percent occupancy during Christmas after Israel convinced many tourists that it is unsafe to stay in West Bank.
Despite being so close, few tourists ever wander West Bank markets and souvenir stalls.
"They are afraid and want to leave as soon as possible because they have been convinced they have reason to fear."
Christmas is the main festival on the Christian calendar. Its celebrations reach its peak at 12:00 PM on December 24 of every year.
Thousands of Christian pilgrims flock to Bethlehem every year to celebrate Christmas at the historical Nativity Church.
Palestinian Tourism Minister Khouloud Daibes also criticized the Israeli restrictive tactics in Bethlehem.
"They want to reduce Bethlehem visits to just a few hours," she told the Telegraph.
"Through tourism, we can create jobs and create hope.
"Sadly, on a political level, Israel is not mentally ready to share either the responsibility or the benefits."
Daibes said the West Bank receives just five percent of total religious tourism revenues.
"The problem is they are not ready to deal with us as equal partners."
The minister warned that the Israeli measures have negative impact on peace prospects.
"We see tourism as a major aspect of development for not only the Palestinian economy but also the Israeli economy," she said.
"It could even lead to a positive environment for peace.
(IslamOnline.net and Agencies)