Merry Christmas…. but by Israeli decree not in Bethlehem

The Church of the Nativity, seen here, would normally be crammed with Pilgrims at Christmas and Palestinian vendors would be doing a thriving business greeting pilgrims. Not this year. Israel has imposed strict controls on tourism. But not, it seems, for Jewish tourists. Read more….

For the second year in a row, COVID-19 has dealt a devastating blow to Christmas celebrations in the town where it all began. According to a recent report in the Israeli daily Ha’aretz, “This Christmas, Bethlehem Is Preparing for a Very ‘Silent Night”. Until recently, there was still hope that things might turn out differently this year.

Located in the West Bank, about 10 kilometers south of Jerusalem, Bethlehem nominally fall under the jurisdiction of the Palestinian Authority. But because there is no airport in the Occupied Palestinian Territories, tourists traveling to the biblical town must enter through Ben Gurion Airport, meaning that Israeli restrictions on tourism affect the Occupied Palestinian Territories as well. Even those wishing to enter from Jordan face Israeli customs and immigration rules.

According to Palestinian tourism officials, the busiest day ever recorded at the Church of the Nativity was the last Saturday of November 2019. On that one day, 12,000 visitors, mainly foreigners, toured the UNESCO Heritage Site. To emphasize how badly the pandemic has devastated this town, officials note that in recent weeks there have been 150 visitors a day at the church, on average. Most of them are locals.

Jews welcome, non-Jews not welcome

Meanwhile, 160 young American and Canadian Jews participating in Birthright Israel’s free 10-day trips landed at Ben-Gurion International Airport on Monday. The program received a special exemption from the overall ban on incoming tourism imposed several weeks ago when the omicron variant was identified.

Birthright was founded by Canadian Charles Bronfman. Approximately 500 Canadian Jews participate in the Birthright program every year.

The decision to exempt “Jewish tourism” programs like Birthright from the overall ban on incoming tourism was made by Israeli Interior Minister Ayelet Shaked. It sparked outrage in the local Christian community as pilgrim groups planning to celebrate Christmas in the Holy Land were denied entry.

A senior church figure said “There is an issue of principle here – why are Birthright visitors, who are foreign citizens, getting an exemption, while Christian pilgrims are not? The only difference is that they are Jews.”

The Franciscan Church is one of several Christian churches in Gaza.

Christmas in Bethlehem is equally important to the more than 1,000 Palestinian Christians who live in Gaza, less than 75 km from Bethlehem. But Israel has issued them only 500 travel permits – and in some cases, rather cynically only to the children in a family and not to their parents, meaning no one is able to go.

It seems that to the Jewish State of Israel, celebrating Jewish heritage is important, but Christian heritage less so.

Canada Talks Israel Palestine (CTIP) is the weekly newsletter of Peter Larson, Chair of the Ottawa Forum on Israel/Palestine (OFIP). It aims to promote a serious discussion in Canada about Canada’s response to the complicated and emotional Israel/Palestine issue with a focus on the truth, clear analysis and human rights for all. Readers with different points of view are invited to make comment.

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  1. Well this only one more example among thousands and thousands others, restricting or eliminating support in relation to Palestinians, even by blatantly going against world Christians .
    Problem is that there is no real outcry against Israel by Christians or Muslims anywhere.Israelis know that they can do anything they want with impunity.
    Discrimination, racism, it’s all alive and well, but no restrictions when it comes to propaganda in favor of Israel.

  2. Given the seriousness of the Covid-19 pandemic, restricting tourism reveals an understanding of the nature of the problem. Making an exception of selected propaganda tours reveals hypocrisy.

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