BETHLEHEM, West Bank (AFP) — Tourism to Bethlehem has risen 60 percent in the run-up to Christmas, despite Israel's separation barrier turning the birthplace of Christ into a "big prison", its mayor said on Tuesday.
In his annual address as the small West Bank town -- whose economy has been decimated by violence -- prepares for Christmas, Victor Batarseh said tourism to Bethlehem had grown 60 percent in the past three months.
"In January 2007, 18,509 tourists visited the city of Bethlehem and starting September 2007, the number of tourists started to increase," he said.
There were 64,420 tourists in November and "we are expecting even more this month," the mayor said, attributing the increase to churches abroad projecting an image of safety and encouraging Christians to show solidarity and visit.
Before the Palestinian uprising broke out in September 2000, nearly a million tourists and Christian pilgrims visited Bethlehem each year.
But the mayor expressed only muted hope for the resumption of the peace process, announced at a conference in Annapolis, Maryland in November more than seven years after the last US-sponsored Middle East peace talks collapsed.
"Everyone hopes that Annapolis will lead to peace but we have had bad experiences from these conferences. They talk but nothing is implemented on the ground," said Batarseh.
He slammed Israel's separation barrier, which has sealed Bethlehem off from nearby Jerusalem helping to exacerbate high unemployment caused by dwindling tourism, Israeli closures and limits on Palestinian work permits.
"The cradle of our Lord Jesus Christ has turned into a big prison," the mayor said.
"This discriminating wall, besides isolating our town from the outside world and depriving Bethlehem from any future growth, snakes its way deep inside our municipal borders... closing the historic and main entrance of Bethlehem."
The barrier has devastated Palestinian farmers, the mayor said, confiscating 7,000 dunums (about 700 acres or 280 hectares) of arable land, making the lives of Palestinians "almost impossible" and putting them in "ghettos".
He said the municipality was in "dire financial crisis" and that employees' salaries had not been paid for the past two months.
The French government has donated 400,000 euros (587,624 dollars) this year for the Bethlehem Christmas lights, he said.
The numbers of Christians living in the Palestinian territories has shrunk in recent years, as those with means have fled abroad. Bethlehem was once a predominantly Christian town, but today Muslims make up the majority.
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