O little town, how still it lies

George Juha closed his reservations book long ago. Anticipation about the millennium was so high that, by September, tour groups had booked every seat in his Bethlehem restaurant for the rest of the year.

Today, he's waiting for someone - anyone - to show up. His linens gleam crisp white, his silverware shines, but at lunchtime his tables stand empty.

The strife between Palestinians and Israelis has brought celebrations in Jesus' birthplace to a shuddering halt. Nearly three months into this intifada, Bethlehem is silent, a testament to wounded hopes for peace caused by the conflict.

This month is meant to be joyous. Jews enjoy Hanakkuh, Muslims mark the end of Ramadan this year on Dec. 25 here, even as Christians honor Jesus' birth, but the mood throughout Israel and the occupied territories is grim. Even so, the anchoring rituals of faith, family, and community continue.

As they do, people are watching meetings now under way in the US, where Israelis and Palestinians are consulting separately with American negotiators on restarting peace talks. An agreement would mean an end to the conflict that has killed some 330 to date. For Bethlehem, it would lead to the return of religious pilgrims and tourists: the local livelihood.

"We hope, we hope," Mr. Juha says quietly, as he watches two workmen string decorative lights across the town's deserted central square.

Israeli politics present another unknown, as February elections will pit Prime Minister Ehud Barak against opposition party leader Ariel Sharon and others. Palestinians loathe Mr. Sharon for his role in a 1982 massacre of Palestinian refugees in Lebanon. And they see Mr. Barak as disingenuous, as he has simultaneously talked peace and followed policies they consider harmful to negotiations.

In Bethlehem, feelings against Barak run high after media reports that the town may be declared a closed military zone over Christmas. According to Israeli spokesman David Baker, these reports are inaccurate. "There is no such decision to close Bethlehem for Christmas," he says.

But daily closures, which restrict Palestinian and tourist movement, have already taken a toll. The Israeli Defense Forces block the road leading to Bethlehem, check all IDs, and refuse some people entry. Bethlehem had special hopes that this year's millennial tourism would be record-breaking. Instead, says Nabil Qassis, the Palestinian minister of state for Bethlehem 2000, "in October and November, we had an average of 3,000 visitors - less than the number of tourists on any one day in a bad year."

Safety has also deterred visitors. In nearby Beit Jalla, homes have come under IDF missile fire as Israelis retaliate for Palestinian gunfire. And a Jewish religious site near the entrance to Bethlehem has been the scene of bloody confrontations. "Conventional wisdom has it that you go somewhere to have fun," Mr. Qassis says dryly, "not to get shot at."

And so today you could roll a bowling ball down many of Bethlehem's curved, cobblestone streets without hitting a thing. Perched on a hill with views of the countryside all around, Bethlehem is a beautiful place. But these days, with many families in mourning, a heavy silence reigns in its roads, restaurants, and churches.

Traffic on the streets is sparse and the electric signs that line them - reading "Bienvenue!" and "Millennium 2000!" - stay off. Most stores are tightly shuttered, and metal grilles have been pulled down over hotel entrances: There is plenty of room at the inn this year, as the town's 3,000 hotel rooms are empty.

In Manger Square, where throngs of pilgrims usually queue for two to three hours to enter the Church of the Nativity, a few workmen hang lights. In the cool, dimly lit interior of the church itself, a gaggle of schoolchildren skip through, leaving only the sound of echoing footsteps as an elderly priest makes his way to the grotto where tradition says Jesus was born.

Bethlehem Mayor Hanan Nasser does plan some celebrations. "We can't cancel our identity as Christians," he says. There will still be a midnight mass here on Christmas Eve, an event that draws foreign diplomats and usually Yasser Arafat, president of the Palestinian Authority. Children's activities will go ahead, including a choir, a Christmas tree in Manger Square, and a traditional religious procession.

These days, Mr. Nasser sees another kind of procession, as local businessmen come to him about economic difficulties.

For storeowners like Jack Giacaman these are very tough times. Business at his Holy Land Arts Museum is down "100 percent," he says, surveying the empty shop full of crosses, Christmas decorations, and holy figures. In his workshop, the air rich with the smell of fresh sawdust, eight men continue carving figures from olive wood.

"It's like economic war, what the Israelis are doing to us, cutting us off," Mr. Giacaman says. "We expected so much - this is Christmas 2000!"

Christmas will still deliver rewards for others. Judith Musleh, a supervisor at the Greek Catholic School in nearby Beit Sahour, brought her students to the Church of the Nativity. Many of her students have lost homes to Israeli shelling. "They don't have the feeling of Christmas joy," she says. "We're all very far from spiritual life right now, and so we come here to pray and think and talk about forgiveness, because if peace is just from the outside, it won't work."

(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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