In Bethlehem's Manger Square, Palestinian singer Omar Kamal entertained a crowd of several hundred people this week. Young men met friends; parents snapped pictures of children by a nativity scene next to a giant artificial Christmas tree. A Santa Claus arrived by motorbike.
Bethlehem resident Suhair Issa loves Christmas in her hometown.
"Most people come at night," she says. "They like to drink and eat and buy sweets. It's very nice."
Christmas is the high season in Bethlehem. The traditional birthplace of Christ is the biggest tourist attraction in the Israeli-occupied West Bank. Nearly 2 million people visit Bethlehem each year — a number that has risen steadily over the past several years. On Christmas Eve and Christmas Day, they even get a special gift from Israel; this year, it's chocolates and a set of coasters.
This holiday season, the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID) donated almost $400,000 to bolster the Christmas celebrations on Manger Square. A tree, entertainment and a small Christmas market are staples, but this year saw more music, more booths and more days of activities. USAID says increasing the share of tourist dollars spent at the birthplace of Christ would help everybody.
But not everyone sees the cheer in American spending.
Bethlehem mayor Vera Baboun says the U.S. support has been a great help.
"It was very important to enhance the number of activities in the city [and] the Christmas decorations," Baboun says. "[It was also important] to give more life to the city."
Bethlehem is still more of a little town than a city. About 20,000 people live here. More than 20 percent are unemployed. David Harden, director of the USAID West Bank mission, says the U.S. money to boost Christmas tourism is part of a bigger vision to help the local economy.
"Not only is our goal to increase the number of visitors to Bethlehem, but we would like to help the municipality improve the experience of the tourists, have tourists stay longer, spend more money," he says. "So we think that the whole opportunity there is extraordinary."
Twelve new hotels opened in Bethlehem this year. But local activist Mazen al-Aza saw a different opportunity in the U.S. assistance. He and friends decorated a small tree on Manger Square with spent gas canisters shot by Israeli soldiers during Palestinian protests. He wanted to remind visitors that the U.S. gives Israel $3 billion in military aid every year.
"The catalyst for this idea were the signs all over Manger Square, saying, 'USAID — A gift from the American people,' " al-Aza, in his mid-40s, says. "That made me decide I need to tell the American people the reality. "
Palestinians also take issue with Israel's branding, saying tourists arriving in Bethlehem are visiting Palestine.
Israel's tall concrete separation wall surrounds part of Bethlehem. Visitors go through an Israeli military checkpoint at the main entrance. Some of the vendors at this year's Christmas market blamed the wall and checkpoint for keeping sales disappointingly low. Officials blamed the weather — including a record snowstorm. But tour operator Fadi Kattan says few spend money here.
"The bus parks at the central parking station, the pilgrims are walked into the church," Kattan says, referring to the Church of the Nativity, built over the spot Christ is said to have been born. "They visit the church, they go out, and they go back to Jerusalem or any other place out of the West Bank."
Ahuva Zaken, deputy director of Israel's Tourism Ministry, says Bethlehem is a key part of many visits to Israel.
"We look at Bethlehem as part of the product," Zaken says. "Every tourist who arrives to Israel, to the Holy Land, for religious reasons, cannot really skip Bethlehem."
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