I vowed not to write another Bethlehem Christmas story

I joined a Christmas-story boycott group on Facebook. But here I am, standing in Bethlehem's Manger Square with loudspeakers blaring an Arabic disco version of 'Silent Night.' Let me explain.

By , Staff writer

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    In a Bethlehem souvenir shop, statues of the virgin are behind the glass, with the Bethlehem Municipality and the other main buildings of Manger Square standing in the reflection.
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    Ahmed, who sells souvenirs outside the church, says business is slow and he's only made about 60 Shekels ($15) today, despite it being just before Christmas. He blames Israel for holding up peace talks and US President Barack Obama for putting 'pressure' on Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas.
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    A Christian monk watches a tourist moving through the Church of the Nativity.
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I vowed I wouldn’t do it. I wouldn’t write a story mind-numbingly reminiscent of the Christmas stories I wrote from Bethlehem last year at this time, and the year before that, and the one before that.

It’s not for nothing that when a colleague of mine started a Facebook group called “Reporters against whiny Christmas stories in Bethlehem,” it quickly garnered 70 members. Enjoying the revolt against “Groundhog Day” journalism – popularized by the 1993 movie in which Bill Murray plays a reporter who lives a nightmare of a day that relentlessly repeats itself – I joined, too. And then I made a grave mistake: I let an editor in on the joke.

And so here I stand in Manger Square outside the Church of the Nativity, cherished by Christians worldwide as the birthplace of Jesus Christ, trying to find shopkeepers and tourists who will say something radically different than anything readers have heard before about the not-so-happy situation for Palestinians in the Holy Land.

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From the Church of the Nativity to an Arabic disco version of 'Silent Night'

Now that I’m here, listening to an Arabic disco version of “Silent Night” blaring from the loudspeakers in anticipation of tomorrow night’s big crowd, watching the Palestinian policemen and merchants out in force to serve the sprinkling of tourists passing through just before Christmas Eve, I’m glad I came. The afternoon sun is shining bright, the weather is so mild that I have to take my coat off, and I am suddenly reminded that I only have to travel half an hour from Jerusalem to visit a place that people of faith from around the world dream of visiting their entire lives.

“It’s moving to be here, but Bethlehem is different than we imagined. It’s a busy city, it’s very crowded, and not as pretty as I would have thought,” Ilka Marchianos, an Athens mother of three here with her family, tells me inside the Church of the Nativity – before a priest hushes us up for having too lively a conversation. She adds more quietly: “The political situation makes me sad.”

As it does us all, every one. The five souvenir-sellers I interviewed this afternoon all say that business is bad; not enough tourists come, and when they do, they pray and leave, rather than stay for the night and spend their money. “They’re still afraid to come,” says Bassem Asaf, who sells Palestinian scarves and olive-wood crèches outside the church.

Christmas gift for West Bank: good news for the economy

But the constant, somewhat skewed focus on how terrible things are belies the fact that there is more to Christmas in Bethlehem than “Bah, humbug.”

Economic life in the West Bank is better than it has been in years, according to the World Bank. A report on its website says that if conditions continue to improve due to Israel’s easing travel restrictions in the West Bank, and the peace process moves forward with international support for “growth-enhancing reforms and institution building,” the medium-term outlook is almost cheery.

“ ... with the above assumptions and policy expectation, real GDP growth would increase from about 2 percent in 2008 to 5 percent in 2009, 6.5 percent in 2010, and 7.5 percent in 2011.” (Compare that with the World Bank forecast for the US in 2010: 2.5 percent.)

One caveat: the World Bank says that while the Palestinian economy is growing nicely, it’s still yet to recover to where it was before the al-Aqsa Intifada, which broke out in September 2000.

Inboxes stuffed like stockings

Like most everything in this conflict, both misery and merriment are in the eyes of the beholder. We reporters have had our inboxes stuffed like stockings in the past few days with attempts to spin the story in one direction or the other.

Yesterday we received a report from the PLO Negotiations Support Unit called: Christmas without Hope: Bethlehem and its Environs. It lists some of the very worrying and real facts about limits on Palestinians’ freedom of movement and Israel’s increased control of the city’s surroundings.

And throughout the week we’ve received a torrent of press releases about ways in which the Israeli army and COGAT – the Coordinator for Government Activities in the Territories – have been working with local Christian leaders to ensure a happy holiday, including facilitating the exit of 300 Christians from the Gaza Strip so they could celebrate the holiday in Bethlehem. Even the Israel Defense Forces [IDF] foreign spokesman’s unit has a Christmas greeting to the world on YouTube.

Fresh views, fresh hummus

All of which reminds me why we reporters who cover the Middle East conflict can get to feeling like we’re covering the same story over and over again – and why actually, we’re not.

When I first came here in 1993, and the Israeli army was occupying Bethlehem, as it had been since the 1967 war. Today, the sight of the Palestinian Authority policemen calmly patrolling Manger Square – a day after Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas says there won’t be a third intifada on his watch – reminds me of all that has changed in the years since.

Speaking of which, we’re all waiting for news to pop about an unprecedented prisoner exchange deal between Israel and Hamas – so I’d better wrap up this Christmas story. Yes, the one I vowed I wouldn’t write. As long as I’m a reporter covering this beat, I’m going to keep going out to smell the chestnuts roasting – or at least to have a plate of fresh hummus in Bethlehem.

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