Last Updated Wed, 21 Dec 2005 18:30:20 EST
It may be best known as the birthplace of Jesus, but some Arab merchants say the Israeli army is making it harder for tourists to visit Bethlehem.
This Christmas season, it's expected about 80,000 Christian pilgrims will visit the historic West Bank town. But locals say the presence of a towering concrete wall and metal gate controlled by the Israeli army is damaging both the tourist trade and the city's image.
Christian pilgrims led by Franciscan monks participate in a procession in the Church of the Nativity in the West Bank town of Bethlehem. (AP photo)
The wall is part of Israeli's controversial security barrier - a series of fences and ditches that snake in an out of Palestinian territory as protection against attacks by militants.
The Christmas season should be one of the biggest times of the year for the Bethlehem tourist trade, but that's not so say the vendors at this year's annual Christmas market in Manger Square.
Shereen Matar, a Christian Palestinian who helps in her mother's stall, says it may be because of the security barrier. "Maybe because of the situation and the new checkpoint," she says. "You know because they giving tourists a hard time coming in and out."
The new Israeli checkpoint controlling entry to and from Bethlehem now cuts between the West Bank city and Jerusalem. Israeli officials say the barrier saves lives. "It seems like Bethlehem is a quiet place but don't mistake with it," says Lieut.-Col. Aviv Feigel, the head of the Israeli army's Bethlehem liaison office. "You have a lot or terror organizations and attacks from inside Bethlehem towards Israel."
In 2004, two suicide bombers who carried out attacks against Israelis came from Bethlehem.
Israel has opened a special tourism branch that it says will ease crossings. And Lieut.-Col. Feigel says the number of tourists is actually on the rise.
"We will make sure everyone can go to Bethlehem during Christmas without any problems," he said.
But the Palestinians who live here say the tourism industry has been wrested from their control. They say the wall will discourage tourists from staying overnight.
"The Israeli soldiers will tell the people, 'You are going to Bethlehem? Be careful there are no Israeli police there. Are you sure you want to enter?," said Nasser Allawi, who owns small shop selling religious icons. "Bethlehem is empty," he says.
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