CHRISTMAS came early to Bethlehem this year. Up to a point.
Israel handed over responsibility for tourism and welfare in the West Bank to the Palestinian Authority Nov. 15. So for the first time in decades, Christmas festivities here will be organized by the people who call Jesus one of their own.
``This is like a new birthday for the town,'' says Bethlehem News editor Jawdat Manna.
But the Nov. 15 celebrations marking the symbolic independence of Palestinians merely served to highlight the limited nature of their self-rule in the West Bank's most popular tourist venue and one of Christianity's holiest and most-contested places. Bethlehem is still waiting for Israeli withdrawal. Israeli troops are due to withdraw from the West Bank prior to Palestinian elections, which could take place during the first half of next year.
``This is the first Christmas that Palestinians will be in charge of tourism ... but not yet of security,'' says Bajis Ismail, director-general of tourism and archaeology, at his office in Manger Square. ``I don't imagine that it will be much different from previous years.'' Mr. Ismail, who has received several delegations from international hotel chains, says it will be difficult for Palestinians to benefit from the new dispensation until the dilapidated infrastructure is are restored.
``We plan is encourage investors to build more hotels,'' he says. ``But investors need incentives, and we cannot compete with the Israelis in offering incentives.''
Last year, as in previous years, Israeli soldiers sealed the entrances to the holy town and clashed with Palestinian scouts who descended on Manger Square flying the green, white, and red Palestinian flag.
``We look to Jesus as a Palestinian ... he was born here in Bethlehem,'' says Mr. Manna, who has been jailed three times and had his paper closed three times by Israelis since the publication was founded in 1980.
The town is surrounded by modern Jewish settlements, while about a third of Bethlehem's population of 35,000 live in overcrowded refugee camps surrounded by 25-foot high fences to ensure the safety of passing settlers. Bethlehem's only traffic lights, on the intersection with the main road to Hebron, are permanently switched off so that the settlers do not become targets for stone-throwing Palestinian youths.
But Israel will retain control of tourism in Jerusalem, only 15 minutes away, which is the primary destination for the 900,000 or so tourists who visit the Holy Land each year. About half that number make it to Bethlehem.
Israel is expecting about 2 million tourists for the 2,000th anniversary of the birth of Jesus of Nazareth. Many of them will flock to the Church of the Nativity, one of the world's oldest churches, which is built over the cave that is widely regarded as the exact spot where Jesus was born.
Today the Church of the Nativity off Manger Square, with its wire-enmeshed sentry towers and patrolling Israeli soldiers armed with automatic weapons, is reluctantly shared by the Greek Orthodox Church, the Armenians, and the Roman Catholics, who each celebrate Christmas at different times.
Built in the 4th century under the rule of Emperor Constantine, the church has survived abuse under the rule of the Mamelukes, constant looting during the Ottoman period, an earthquake in 1834, and a fire in 1869 that damaged the Grotto of the Nativity. Today it remains under Israeli occupation.
A plethora of international church missions and schools - from Germany, Italy, and France - have helped the town survive during this period. But its impact on this most holy Christian site shows.