BETHLEHEM, West Bank (Reuters) - Thousands of tourists and pilgrims are gathering to celebrate Christmas in Bethlehem, where Palestinians say hopes for peace on earth seem far from reality in the shadow of Israel’s security barrier.
Here are some facts about current conditions in the Biblical birthplace of Jesus:
* Nine years ago, Bethlehem was the site of some of the worst fighting in the violent Palestinian Intifada, or uprising. Tourism collapsed, and the economy came to a standstill, with unemployment reaching 60 percent. Unemployment is now down to 23 percent, according to the Bethlehem Chamber of Commerce.
* Bethlehem’s economy took a leap forward last year when tourism levels rose dramatically, as visitors were tempted back after an end to violence. This year, the Latin Patriarchy says Christmas visitors will return to pre-Intifada levels.
* Bethlehem is now a dramatic example of the effects of Israel’s separation barrier, made up of ditches, wire fences, and towering concrete walls. Israel says it has been largely successfully in stopping violent attacks against its citizens.
* In Bethlehem, concrete slabs up to 8 metres (25 feet) high jut up abruptly against homes and storefronts, isolating the community and cutting through streets. The road to Jerusalem passes through steel gates and open tunnels of tall concrete, looked over by Israeli troops in watchtowers.
* Towns like Bethlehem and surrounding villages in the West Bank are heavily reliant on farmland. A study this year by the U.N. Office for the Coordination of Human Affairs (OCHA) states that 50-75 percent of agricultural land traditionally used by people of the Bethlehem municipality has been confiscated through the construction of Israel’s barrier and its settlement building.
* According to OCHA, 19 Israeli settlements and 16 outposts are scattered throughout the Bethlehem governate, with a combined population of about 86,000 Jewish settlers.
* In order to incorporate the settlement bloc Gush Etzion into the Israeli side, the wall being constructed around the western part of the Bethlehem governate is expected to extend 10 km (6 miles) inside the Palestinian territories, OCHA said.
* Only 13 percent of land within the Bethlehem government is directly under Palestinian control. Parts are jointly governed by Israeli and Palestinian authorities, but the majority is under Israeli control. About 178,000 Palestinians live in the governate which reaches from Bethlehem down to the shores of the Dead Sea.
Writing by Erika Solomon, editing by Douglas Hamilton