JERUSALEM — Holy Land Christians are praying that the violence that has gripped Jerusalem and some other parts of Israel and the West Bank in recent months will not discourage pilgrims from visiting this Christmas season.
Tourism is the No. 1 industry in the Bethlehem region, where most Christians in the West Bank reside. It is also a vitally important industry in East Jerusalem and Nazareth, in northern Israel, which are home to tens of thousands of Christians.
The upsurge in violence began in June, when Palestinians killed three Jewish teenagers and Jews retaliated by slaying a Palestinian teenager in early July. After Israeli forces rounded up Hamas militants, Hamas — which the U.S. government calls a terrorist organization — began to launch rockets at Israeli population centers. Hamas sent more than 2,500 rockets into Israel, and Israel responded with a heavy assault on Gaza that destroyed or damaged tens of thousands of homes.
In all, 2,100 Palestinians and 72 Israelis were killed during the war, which ended with a cease-fire on Aug. 26.
Since then, Palestinians have carried out several terror attacks against Israelis. In one of the latest, two Palestinians stormed a synagogue and killed four rabbis, three of them dual U.S.-Israeli citizens.
Despite the situation, Jiries Qumsiyeh, head of public relations for the Palestinian Ministry of Tourism, said pilgrimage reservations remained strong, though lower than for the same period last year.
“Tourism was down during the war over the summer, but it began to rebound. Before the war, hoteliers said they were overbooked, so we hope the hotels will be full for Christmas.”
Qumsiyeh said that when tourism in the Bethlehem area — which includes the Christian-oriented towns of Beit Sahour and Beit Jala — suffers so do Palestinian Christians.
“Most of the people working in the tourism sector are Palestinian Christians from the Bethlehem area,” said Qumsiyeh. “Most of the Christians in Palestine depend on tourism.”
The Bethlehem municipality is doing its best to ensure pilgrims have a meaningful and memorable visit. A Nov. 29 visit to the Church of the Nativity in Manger Square by Franciscan Father Pierbattista Pizzaballa, the custos of the Holy Land, commenced the local Christian community’s annual program of Christmas-related events.
The schedule includes numerous musical performances and plays — many of them children-oriented — on weekends throughout Advent and culminates with Christmas midnight Mass celebrated at St. Catherine Church by the Latin patriarch of Jerusalem, Fouad Twal. Special events will continue to take place daily during the week following Christmas.
Tourism in the Palestinian territories is largely dependent on tourism in Israel. Several Palestinian terror attacks, most of them in Jerusalem, have resulted in hotel cancellations in the holy city.
Christian pilgrimages typically include visits to holy sites in Jerusalem, Bethlehem, the northern Israeli city of Nazareth and the Sea of Galilee. While it is possible to bypass Jerusalem, few pilgrims want to miss praying at the Church of the Holy Sepulcher or retracing Jesus’ steps down the Via Dolorosa in the Old City of Jerusalem.
Although Qumsiyeh couldn’t offer any statistics, Israeli officials said the number of foreign tourists dropped 31% over the summer, compared to 2013.
It was an especially hard blow, given that the first five months of 2014 were 17% stronger than the same period a year earlier.
According to the Israel Ministry of Tourism, the country could incur as much as $540 million in tourism-related losses.
Quoting the Jerusalem Hotel Association, Mark Feldman, a Jerusalem travel agent who writes a column for The Jerusalem Post, said most Jerusalem hotels are averaging “barely 40% occupancy” at the moment, compared to the far healthier 65% to 70% average rates during this time of year.
Although things are expected to improve somewhat for Christmas, “inquiries for future bookings remain few and far between, and the reality is that the mere perception there is no solution to be found has profoundly affected potential tourists,” Feldman said.
The Old City of Jerusalem
In the Old City of Jerusalem, where pilgrims traditionally flock in the days and weeks leading up to Christmas, everything was calm and peaceful.
But Christian shopkeepers said business was a fraction of what it should be this time of year.
“Business isn’t good at all right now,” said Issam Atala, a Catholic merchant, as he gazed out at the nearly empty alleyway — one of the main alleyways in the market — where his shop is located.
Atala said business never really picked up after the war this summer.
“People got frightened away. We still have pilgrims coming, but it’s not the same as last year. Last year was a good year, and we were hoping the trend would continue.”
Atala, whose shop caters to pilgrims, said the tourism situation is making it difficult to support his family.
“Do you want to guess how much I earned today? Guess. Only 4 euros [$5]. Yesterday, I earned just $20.”
In good times, he said, he can earn hundreds of dollars per day.
Glancing at his friend Khaled Khayyat, who is Muslim, Atala said that people of all faiths want a just and lasting peace. He emphasized, too, that “Christians and Muslims are the same people. We are all Palestinians.”
“And I have a lot of Jewish friends,” he said.
Just then, Yerish Avakian, an Armenian Christian, entered Atala’s store.
“There is no work,” said Avakian, who creates and sells molds used to make silver jewelry. “Business has been down since the beginning of the summer, but it’s very bad right now.”
Atala said he and other shopkeepers “are still hoping Christmas will be better, that pilgrims will come. In reality, it’s mostly very peaceful and safe here.”
Being so dependent on tourism and the whims of war and peace “is difficult,” Atala said.
“If I had the money, I would move abroad.”
‘This Is Home’
A couple of shops down the alleyway, two brothers in their 20s sat in their empty store.
“Business isn’t terrible, but it feels more like off-season than on-season,” said a Catholic shopkeeper who requested anonymity.
“We thank God for everything, but it’s tough.”
Asked whether he and his family, who have owned the Christian Quarter shop for three generations, ever think about moving abroad — as so many Middle-East Christians have done during the past century — the shopkeeper replied, “Not one of us can imagine leaving this place that we love so much. Our parents are here; our grandparents are here. Our land is here. This is home.”
Michele Chabin is the Register's Middle East correspondent.