On Christmas Eve the Latin Patriarch Fouad Twal declared that this year Bethlehem would celebrate both “the birth of Christ our Lord and the birth of the state of Palestine.” But as tourists poured into Manger Square for the annual festivities—drum lines, bagpipes, an address from President Mahmoud Abbas—outside of the city center shop owners were working, not celebrating, because despite the hailed UN Observer status, the West Bank is in economic decline.
Since last year, “business is down 100 percent,” joked Ra’ar ‘Alayam on Christmas day, an owner of a butcher shop in Bethlehem’s old city. From his store door frame four turkeys hung, which per kilo cost about four times as much as a chicken, packaged and ready to be sold. His shop is on the main road by the entrance to the outdoor fruit and vegetable market. Yet despite a location in what should be the center of commerce during the busiest season of the year, ‘Alayam’s sales are slow. “Realistically” he said they are “down 70 to 80 percent,” since before the second Intifada.
The noticeable lack of tourists in the old city on Christmas Day is a visual contrast to the stated increased of visitors estimated by the Palestinian Ministry of Tourism. 15,000 went to Bethlehem for Christmas Eve, up by 20 percent from last year. But often those visitors enter Bethlehem through a tourist company and are whisked directly to the Christian holy sites from Jerusalem, then returned hours later. On Christmas day I only saw two international tourists in the interior of the old city, a young French couple that referred to their stay as in “Israel,” although Bethlehem is internationally recognized as part of the occupied Palestinian territories. As well, within the first five minutes that I was in Bethlehem I overheard one tour guide trying to dissuade a group of middle-aged American men from venturing off into other parts of the city.
But ‘Alayam’s customers are not tourists. His business comes from local Palestinians, yet the decreasing gross domestic product (GDP) in the West Bank and rising unemployment are impacting his sales. In 2012 the International Monetary Fund reported [PDF] in the past two years the GDP in the West Bank went down by half and unemployment hit 19 percent. A science teacher inside of ‘Alayam’s shop laughed that his wages were “down 100 percent,” reflecting the salary freezes for public workers that are a result of the Palestinian Authority’s $1.2 billion debt to private banks. This loss of wages is not only affecting Bethlehem, but also the surrounding cities that are dependent upon wages from the city.
“Before [the Oslo Accords] people blamed the occupation, but they understand that now it is not our first problem, the government is,” said ‘Alayam. “Abu Mazen came and he said we will have a state, life and money. And then nothing happened.” ‘Ayalam also said that he welcomed the Israeli military to re-occupy Area A of the West Bank, as it was occupied 20 years ago, because comparatively, at that time, there was prosperity. Even Abbas himself has threatened to disband the PA just last week—so long as Israeli moves ahead with announced construction plans in E1, a portion of East Jerusalem that connects the city to the West Bank.
In Dheisheh refugee camp, a ten-minute drive from Bethlehem– but one hour during Christmas when PA police closed down main roads for Abbas’s security convoy– there was no sense of, or benefit from the international celebration a few kilometers away. “Now we are in the stage of implementation of policies that were made during Oslo,” said Mohamad Aziz, 21, a business major at Bethlehem University who likened the current economic conditions to the global recession following the Industrial Revolution. Aziz is a member of the hip-hop group Palestine Street. From his recording studio, he and two of the four band members, Diya Milhem and Hisham al-Iham told me that the Christmas festivities that made it on the airwaves to the outside, unoccupied world are “not the reality, it’s just one day in the year.” Aziz added that he overheard a number of journalists on Christmas prompting Palestinians to manufacture jubilation over the statehood bid.
When discussing the Christmas tour groups to Bethlehem that do not enter the old city–or Dheisheh–Aziz clasped his hands like they were in cuffs and said the guides conceal the “hidden elements,” of the occupation. He then showed me an image on his computer of the “real Christmas tree,” a section of Israel’s separation, or Apartheid wall, decorated with barbwire and tear gas canisters. Three years ago in 2010 the PA allowed 50 Israeli tour guides from Israeli companies to take groups to Bethlehem. At the time, over 40 Palestinian guides were supposed to be granted reciprocial privilages to take groups inside of Israel’s 1967 borders. However, that promise has yet to be honored.
All photographs are by the author.