As Christmas approaches, Palestinian Christians in Bethlehem, the birthplace of Jesus, are busy decorating the city and preparing the holiday festivities. Like Christians the world over, the city of Bethlehem, which suffers under Israeli military occupation, is in the hearts and minds of Palestinians everywhere at Christmas time.
Bethlehem and its holy sites are part of a larger heritage shared by all Palestinians, Muslims, Christians, and non-believers alike. In January, 2011 Palestinians submitted an application to have the Church of the Nativity (built 1,700 years ago on what is considered to be the birthplace of Jesus Christ) designated a World Heritage site. With Palestine's recent admission as a member to UNESCO, such a move has a higher chance of success, helping to preserve this historic church for Palestinians and Christians around the world, indeed for all of humanity.
Economically, Bethlehem relies upon religious tourism for much of its income. However, Israel has largely monopolized the industry by arranging tours of religious sites and controlling the movement of tourists in and out of Bethlehem, denying many struggling Palestinian businesses much-needed access to foreign consumers.
The wall (deemed illegal by the International Court of Justice) that Israel has built runs extremely close to the city center, obstructing the movement of people, trade, and commerce. As a result, the city center has actually shrunken in size. Bethlehem's sister city, Jerusalem, which lies just a few miles away, is now inaccessible except for the few who can obtain travel permits from Israel.
Israel's nearly 45-year-old military occupation of the West Bank, East Jerusalem, and Gaza, makes a normal life virtually impossible for Palestinians living there, including those in Bethlehem. Nevertheless, it's not all bad news. About 1 million Christian pilgrims still come to Bethlehem every year, making it one of the most visited religious sites in the region.This year the neighboring town of Beit Sahour will host a three-day music and dance festival entitled Shepherds' Nights to celebrate the holy day. The festival closes out on Christmas Eve with a candle-lit procession and dance performance by al-Funoun al-Sha'biyeh, the popular and respected dance troupe founded in 1979, that has toured the U.S. at least five times.