ONLINE ONLY: Festive Smear

It was a bumper year for tourism in Bethlehem in 2010. According to Palestinian figures, 1.4 million people visited the West Bank town and traditional birthplace of Jesus, up sixty percent on last year. As in 2009, all hotels were fully booked over Christmas, when 90,000 people descended on Manger Square and its environs.

But somehow, these staggering figures did not stem the flow of “yes, but” stories making their way into the British press over the Christmas period. Such stories dutifully presented the good news about Bethlehem’s “unprecedented tourist boom” at the outset before devoting the remainder to imbuing readers with the sense that all is actually not so well and that Israel is to blame.

This phenomenon is not new. Year on year, Middle East correspondents file the same stories, with some reporters so bored of being called upon to do so that they created a Facebook group called, “Reporters against whiny Christmas stories in Bethlehem“. Nonetheless, most re-delivered the goods this December.

Palestinian accusations of Israeli ‘theft’ of tourist revenues

One of the most oft-repeated falsehoods in Christmas Middle East media coverage is that Israel somehow “steals” tourism revenues from Bethlehem. This stems from the fact that most of the 1.4 million Christians who visited the town this year will have been participants in pre-packaged tours of Christian sites across Israel, visiting dozens of places over the course of about a week. As such they do not stay in Bethlehem for more than a few hours, before returning to Israel for the next tourist stop.

This basic reality, however, is morphed into a tale of the Goliath Israel throttling away at the livelihoods of Palestinian Davids who are trying to sell their wares and simply get by.

The Observer‘s page two feature, served up on Boxing Day, captured this perfectly:

The problem, say the authorities, is that Bethlehem’s boom is not a very profitable one — at least not for many Palestinians. Most visitors spend too little time and cash in a city where the constraints of the Israeli occupation have dramatically diminished sources of employment, apart from tourism. The majority of visitors come by bus, spend a couple of hours in the church and then return to Israel, where they spend most of their holiday money.

“It is true that this is a record year and that we have never received so many tourists in Bethlehem. The problem is that we only get 10% of the tourist revenues. The rest stays in Israel,” complains Palestinian tourism minister Khouloud Daibes. A total of 1.4 million people have visited Jesus’s birthplace this year, a 60% increase compared with last year. According to the minister, 70%-80% of this year’s tourists are one-day visitors.

The Palestinian tourism minister is further quoted by the journalist launching an all out attack on the Israeli thieves, accusing them of mounting, “a very aggressive promotional strategy… to shorten the stay of tourists in Bethlehem”.

The Independent, too, painted a similar distorted picture:

Just off Manger Square, souvenir vendors watch with frustration as the tourists streaming out of the Church of the Nativity head back to their buses for the drive back to Jerusalem.

Shop owners claim that tour guides prevent their charges from heading into the winding, narrow alleyways of the Old City, where most souvenir shops are situated, and instead guide them to large gift shops owned by a few rich families where they receive commission. “So there’s 1.5 million [visitors], but what do I make from them?” grumbles Ibrahim, a Palestinian in his 50s who is polishing an olive wood nativity scene. “Who takes the money? A few, and the rest of us are suffering.”

Again, the idea that tours don’t have all day to spend at one site does not seem to occur to anyone. Bethlehem, as a Palestinian town in the Israeli-occupied West Bank, must obviously merit an overnight stay with time enough to visit every tourist shop in the vicinity.

Alleged Israeli disruption to tourist flow into Bethlehem

The fact that Israel controls access to Bethlehem is made much of by the complainers:

The fate of Bethlehem as a tourist destination is inevitably linked to Israel. There is no Palestinian airport, which means visitors either have to land in Tel Aviv or arrive from Jordan and cross an Israeli-controlled border. [Minister] Daibes says one of the consequences is that Israeli operators dominate the tourist itineraries.

The implication here, made by The Observer‘s Ana Carbajosa, is that if tourists could fly straight to the West Bank, they would do so, allowing Palestinian tour operators to persuade them to stay longer in Bethlehem. Given that Bethlehem currently only has 2,750 hotel rooms, it is doubtful that a Palestinian airport would assist here. The fact is, Bethlehem lacks the infrastructure to accommodate the very tourism which it claims Israel steals.

Furthermore, most of the sites of Christian interest are in Israel and Israeli-controlled east Jerusalem, making it unlikely that this constituency would opt for a West Bank tour operator if presented with the option.

Again, these mundane practicalities do not make it into the narrative.

Also on the issue of Israeli-controlled access, the Independent‘s Catrina Stewart quotes a Bethlehem hotelier complaining that Israeli restrictions at the border crossing prevent “permanent access for tourists” — this in spite of the fact that an unbelievable 1.4 million people seem to have managed to overcome the Israeli crossing point this year.

At least an Israeli response was inserted at this point, citing “a ‘record-breaking year’ for tourism in Bethlehem, thanks in large part to Israel’s confidence-building measures.”

The Christian predicament in the Middle East and the Bethlehem exception

Following news in mid-December that in the last four months more than a thousand Christian families have fled persecution in Baghdad, journalists paid some attention to the plight of Christians across the Middle East. However, the plight of Christianity in Bethlehem was ignored by journalists filing stories less than a fortnight after the Iraq story.

One of the most robust responses to the Iraq exodus came from The Times in an editorial, titled, “Christian Persecution,” which lamented the limited choices facing Iraq’s “embattled” Christian community whose roots were laid down “long before the arrival of Islam”.

References to other examples of persecution of religious minorities in the Middle East, including in Bethlehem, gave the impression the problem is widespread:

For not only in Iraq are Christians facing new persecution. The Copts in Egypt are paying for the growing frustrations of the Muslim majority and political repression. Rising Islamist extremism has forced thousands to leave Bethlehem, once a Christian-majority town.

On this occasion The Guardian placed the events in Iraq is the broader context of Christian persecution across the Middle East, mentioning, if somewhat tentatively, the predicament of Christians in Lebanon and Egypt:

The exodus has sparked widespread concern among Christian communities elsewhere in the Middle East, such as Lebanon and Egypt, where they enjoy freedom, but are apprehensive about declining demographic balance.

When reporting Bethlehem, however, there was a wholesale omission on the part of the left-of-centre media to cover the issue of diminishing numbers of Christians in the once majority Christian town and to link this to well-established trends across the Muslim-majority Middle East.

The same articles hosting complaints about Israel stealing trade and blocking tourist access were silent about the fact that Christian inhabitants now constitute only one third of the town’s population, down from three-quarters.

This represents a gaping omission by journalists who have devoted time to travel to the traditional birthplace of Jesus at Christmas time and cover Christian tourism to the town.

It cannot be that this is simply a case of a handful of UK articles failing to offer a fair and accurate picture of events in Israel-Palestine. These distorted reports from Bethlehem are served up every Christmas, in a well-established trend of unfairly painting Israel as the villain in a scenario which is the product of diverse factors, least of which is Israel.

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