Bethlehem: At Christmas time the world looks to Jesus` traditional birthplace of Bethlehem, and this year the Palestinians hope to use some of that attention to boost their quest for independence.
They`re trying to be subtle about it, with just a hint of politics in this year`s Christmas slogan, "Palestine celebrating hope," a veiled reference to their bid this fall to win UN recognition of a Palestinian state.
Organizers say they didn`t want to be overtly political for fear of putting off foreign pilgrims in search of a religious experience. Some 90,000 foreign visitors are expected to throng the Church of the Nativity and adjacent Manger Square in December, including 50,000 during Christmas week.
"We want to use this opportunity to convey a message to the world that we have hope of having our own independent state and we need the international support for that," said Palestinian Tourism Minister Khouloud Daibes. "Since Christmas is a religious occasion, we can`t use direct political slogans."
Volunteers will distribute postcards with the Christmas motto in the courtyard of the Church of the Nativity, built over the grotto where tradition says Jesus was born. Visitors can then mail them at the Manger Square post office, using Palestinian stamps, another symbol of the state in the making.
Members of a tour group from Britain and Canada heading into the Nativity church Tuesday had mixed feelings. Some, like 37-year-old pilot Mario Savian from Ontario, said they didn`t like injecting politics into Christmas.
But Catherine Meecham, 62, a retired health worker from Scotland, said there was a legitimate connection because Christmas is a time to pray for peace. "I want to see people in Palestine find a peaceful solution," she said.
Israeli government spokesman Mark Regev said the cause of peace would be better served by Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas resuming negotiations with Israel. "We hope that the Palestinians will use the holiday season as a time to think ... and that ultimately they will soon expeditiously return to peace talks," he said.
Abbas has said he won`t negotiate unless Israel halts construction for Jews on occupied lands the Palestinians want for their state, arguing settlement growth pre-empts the outcome of talks.
As part of the campaign, the Palestinians also offer pre-Christmas media tours to highlight Bethlehem area settlement expansion and the disruption caused by Israel`s separation barrier which surrounds the city on three sides. Israel announced or approved plans for thousands more apartments for Jews in the Bethlehem area in recent months, settlement watchdogs say.
"This Christmas will be an opportunity to show the real threat to the city of Bethlehem — the settlement enterprise and the wall that separates the city from its twin, Jerusalem," said Ziad Bandak, an Abbas adviser on Christian affairs.
The Bethlehem area, which borders occupied lands Israel annexed to Jerusalem after the 1967 Mideast War, has been particularly hard-hit by settlement construction, said Hagit Ofran of the Israeli anti-settlement group Peace Now.
She said the expansion is an attempt to block the Palestinians from establishing a capital in the annexed areas of Jerusalem — a reference to the fact that the construction creates an Israeli buffer between Palestinian areas Israel has effectively ceded, like Bethlehem, and any part of Jerusalem.
Regev argued that Israel only approved construction "in areas where there`s a strong consensus internationally that they`ll stay part of Israel" in a final peace deal.
However, the international community has repeatedly urged Israel to halt settlement construction.
After Christmas, Abbas` government also plans to seek UN recognition of Bethlehem as a world heritage site, following acceptance of Palestine as a member of the world body`s cultural agency, UNESCO. The successful UNESCO membership bid further strained relations with Israel, which accused Abbas of trying to bypass negotiations with unilateral actions and temporarily suspended the transfer of $100 million in Palestinian tax refunds.
Over the years, Christmas in Bethlehem has reflected the rollercoaster of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Tourism experienced a long dry spell at the height of the second Palestinian uprising a decade ago — at one point Palestinian gunmen on the run from Israeli troops even barricaded themselves in the Nativity church for a month.
During the relative lull of recent years, the number of visitors has risen gradually, in part because Israel has eased access through the barrier which consists of gray cement slabs along the stretch separating Bethlehem from Jerusalem.
This year, the number of foreign visitors is expected to be up about 10 percent from last year, mainly because more pilgrims are coming from Russia and Poland, new markets for the Palestinian tourism industry, officials said.
Local Christians say they have no problem with politicizing the holiday, saying the conflict with Israel affects everyone`s lives here.
"The settlements and the wall turned Bethlehem into a jail," said Suzan Atallah, a 48-year-old teacher and mother of four. "My school can`t take the students to sacred places that they read about in Jerusalem because of the wall and the permits," she added, referring to Israel`s stringent entry restrictions for Palestinians.
In Beit Jalla, a town next to Bethlehem, prayers at the local Roman Catholic church have focused on the fear of losing land to Israel`s separation barrier, said the congregation`s priest, Father Ibrahim Shomaly.
Israel portrays the wall as a defense against militants who during the years of violence would regularly infiltrate Israel, killing hundreds in suicide bombings and other attacks. The Palestinians denounce it a land grab, because in many places it encroaches into the West Bank, effectively pushing the de facto border forward.
Shomaly said a new section currently under construction near Beit Jalla will hamper the community`s access to hundreds of acres of land. "We started praying six weeks ago and will keep praying until God helps us protect our land," the priest said.