In Bethlehem, a stronger feeling of Christmas this year

Flickers of holiday spirit and a limited easing of security tensions are raising hopes for a better Christmas in Bethlehem than any since the start of the Palestinian uprising four years ago.

That may not seem much, given the heavy economic and emotional toll of that period. But for people like Grace Awwad, a 10th-grader at St. Joseph's School, even a small improvement in the atmosphere makes a big difference.

"For us, Christmas isn't decorations. It's a feeling," says the tall, dark-haired young woman. "We haven't felt that feeling during the last two or three years, but now things are a little safer so we are happier. I don't remember Christmas last year because I didn't feel it at all."

Asked about the meaning of Christmas, Awwad says: "I think that, like the joy that was in Mary's heart when Jesus was born, that exact joy is supposed to be present in every heart and every family, in every house, and under every tree in Christmas. This year, I feel it's going to be all right." She says she plans to attend mass, in contrast to some years when fears of being caught up in shooting or a curfew kept her at home.

On Christmas day, her family will have mansaf, a traditional Palestinian dish of lamb with rice. "Christmas is part of our identity. When you say Bethlehem, directly you mean it is the place where Jesus was born," she adds. "We are in the land of Christmas and we should celebrate Christmas with every meaning it carries."

The Israeli army says it is doing its utmost not to impinge on the holiday. For the first time in more than a year, it has given Palestinian police in Bethlehem permission to carry weapons so that they can handle security inside the city. "We have the highest level of coordination that we've had with Palestinian forces in a long time," an army spokeswoman says.

Still, for Bethlehem, this year's Christmas will not nearly approach those of 1999 and 2000, when tourism, the town's mainstay, was booming before the start of the intifada in September 2000.

Just off Manger Square, George Baboul sits in the dark inside his empty souvenir shop. He does not turn on the lights because he can't pay the electricity bill. "I have children in the US and the United Arab Emirates who send me money," he says. "I went to the US last year and did some good business there, but here there is no business."

In the Bethlehem town hall, town manager Jamal Salman looks out over a largely empty Manger Square. "I see no improvement and things are getting worse and worse here," he says. "The only improvement is that the number of tourists is slightly more than last year."

For most of the year, about 5,000 tourists arrived per month, he says. During the past two months 7,000 have come each month, he says. Even with the increase, tourism this year is still less than a tenth of what it was in 2000, he explains. Unemployment, Mr. Salman says, is at 55 percent. He does not expect a joint Israeli-Palestinian announcement last month on tourism cooperation to have much impact.

Several hotel owners, however, are more optimistic. Bethlehem's Paradise Hotel, closed and damaged by fighting, has reopened. A new hotel, the Pilgrim Deluxe Residence, recently opened, Reuters reported.

A United Nations report issued Monday said that 10 percent of Bethlehem's Christian population had moved abroad during the past four years. "This is likely to have a negative impact on skills and capital investment in Bethlehem's tourism sector and significantly alters the ethnic diversity of the city," the report said.

Salman says Israeli army checkpoints and movement strictures are "strangling Bethlehem." Land confiscation for Israel's construction of its West Bank separation barrier, which Israel says is essential to stop suicide bombings, is also souring the mood, he says.

The army says that both the checkpoints and the entry of troops into the town have been necessary to thwart terrorist attacks, such as two bombings inside Israel it says originated in Bethlehem during the summer of 2003. The army is launching a new program to make passage through the checkpoints speedier, including the building of new terminals and the posting of Arabic-speaking soldiers, the spokeswoman said.

Nihad Salman, director of the Shepherd Society charity here, says need for charity keeps increasing. On Saturday, the society held a banquet attended by 1,100 mostly needy people, he said. "The idea is to raise hopes a little bit for the poor who lost hope and to say there might be a better day."

Salman adds: "The Magi brought Joseph gold. We don't say that God will open heaven and let gold fall, but we do say God will bless your existing work or open a door in a place you never thought of. We need to keep on going and God will take care of his own."

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