Bethlehem Subdued For Second Pandemic Christmas

People gather outside the Church of the Nativity, revered as the site of Jesus Christ's birth, during Christmas celebrations in the biblical city of Bethlehem in the Israeli-occupied West Bank, on December 24, 2021. ABBAS MOMANI / AFP
People gather outside the Church of the Nativity, revered as the site of Jesus Christ’s birth, during Christmas celebrations in the biblical city of Bethlehem in the Israeli-occupied West Bank, on December 24, 2021. ABBAS MOMANI / AFP

 

In Bethlehem’s Manger Square, visitors in Santa hats and scouts beating drums marked Christmas Eve on Friday, but fewer people attended as coronavirus fears overshadowed celebrations for a second year.

The city where Christians believe Jesus was born is usually a focal point of the holiday, with thousands packing the streets and filling the hotels.

But Israel, which controls all entrances to Bethlehem in the occupied West Bank, barred its borders to foreigners in an effort to rein in infections from the Omicron strain of the coronavirus.

“It’s very strange,” said Kristel Elayyan, a Dutchwoman married to a Palestinian, who came to Bethlehem from Jerusalem.

READ ALSO: US Health Regulator Authorizes Pfizer’s COVID-19 Pill

“Before (the pandemic), you had a bunch of people coming in from different countries to celebrate Christmas, and now you know that everybody who is here is probably not a tourist.”

Last year, Bethlehem curtailed the celebration sharply because of the pandemic, with a virtual tree lighting and just a handful of visiting scout troops.

This year, the celebrations are certainly more vibrant — but still just a fraction of their usual size.

“If it’s one year, it’s an interesting experience,” Elayyan added of the pandemic.

“But because this is the second year and we don’t know what is going to come in the future, it’s a huge loss for the people here.”

Local visitors

An upbeat Palestinian tourism minister Rula Maayah said it is “thanks to the vaccines” that Bethlehem is celebrating again.

On average, Bethlehem welcomed three million visitors a year before the pandemic, with Christmas alone drawing 10,000 people to the city’s hotels, around half from abroad.

The municipality said it worked this year to appeal to local visitors from Palestinian communities across the Holy Land.

Christians visit the Church of the Nativity, revered as the site of Jesus Christ's birth, during Christmas celebrations in the biblical city of Bethlehem in the Israeli-occupied West Bank, on December 24, 2021. ABBAS MOMANI / AFP
Christians visit the Church of the Nativity, revered as the site of Jesus Christ’s birth, during Christmas celebrations in the biblical city of Bethlehem in the Israeli-occupied West Bank, on December 24, 2021. ABBAS MOMANI / AFP

 

Some hotels were busy, but about a quarter of available rooms citywide were shuttered because of the pandemic, said Elias Arja, head of the Palestinian Hotel Association.

Several businesses kept their doors shut on Friday, despite Christmas Eve being the most important day of the year for Bethlehem.

Inside the Church of the Nativity, visitors were even able to meditate nearly alone at the grotto where Jesus is said to have been born.

“Surreal,” observed Hudson Harder, a 21-year-old American student at Hebrew University in Jerusalem.

“Of course there is a selfish part where it’s like, ‘Oh, I get to see this place so empty’, but on the other hand you feel for the shops, all the money they are losing.”

‘Worse than war’

Steps away from the basilica, the images of Popes John Paul II and Francis cover the front of a shop selling carved olive wood figures and nativity scenes.

Owner Victor Epiphane Tabash said it was his 57th Christmas behind the counter. For him, as for many shopkeepers around Manger Square, “there is nothing to say about Christmas”.

“Only the scouts give a bit of the holiday feeling,” he said, as troops of uniformed scouts marched past, blasting out Christmas carols on drums, trumpets and bagpipes.

Tabash said he kept his business alive during the pandemic by exporting, because no customers came to buy in person. He compared the pandemic to two previous Palestinian uprisings, or intifadas.

“We have lived through the intifadas, wars. But the coronavirus is worse,” he said.

Outside, Maram Saeed, a Palestinian woman from Jerusalem, took a selfie with her husband and two children in front of a towering Christmas tree decorated with shining red and gold spheres.

Saeed said it was a time of joy after many days of depression.

“It’s not like a usual year, we have the fear of the worst, we still fear Covid,” she told AFP.

“When there is war, we know the enemy, and we know who we are fighting. But with Covid, it’s a very tiny enemy that we don’t see, so it’s worse.”

 

AFP

In Bethlehem, Omicron Ruins Hope For Christmas Boom

Manger Square In Israel devoid of Tourists as the Omicron variant of the Covid-19 surges in Israel
A man walks in the Manger Square, devoid of tourists, in the biblical West Bank city of Bethlehem on December 15, 2021, during the otherwise traditionally high tourist season less than two weeks ahead of Christmas. 
ABBAS MOMANI / AFP

 

After collecting dust for nearly two years, the 228 rooms at Bethlehem’s Ararat Hotel were scrubbed last month in anticipation of a post-lockdown Christmas boom, hopes that have again been dashed by the coronavirus.

A large Christmas tree and decorations did little to brighten a deserted lobby.

Like other hotels in Bethlehem, the Ararat has no guests, with the tree offering cheer to no one but the seven out of 105 employees who have not been fired.

“We were expecting 70 percent occupancy for Christmas but all overseas reservations have been cancelled,” said Augustine Shomali, a manager at the hotel.

The people of Bethlehem — a Palestinian city in the Israeli-occupied West Bank where Christians believe Jesus was born — are used to welcoming an influx of tourists each December.

After a near-total pandemic lockdown last year, Bethlehem began to hope for a joyous Christmas when Israel, which controls all access points to the city, announced in October that it would reopen to foreign tourists on November 1.

But less than a month later, just as hotels were getting a makeover and businesses were replenishing their stocks in anticipation of the holiday season, Israel closed again after a case of the highly transmissible Omicron variant of the virus was discovered.

Now, Shomali said the hotel is relying on the domestic market, with only a dozen rooms booked for a Christmas weekend that is normally fully occupied.

“We are trying to find any point of hope,” he said. “Things are harder now.”

Shomali said he closely followed news about Tel Aviv’s Ben Gurion airport in the hope of a reopening to tourists, but Israeli media have reported that with the spread of Omicron the government is considering tightening restrictions, not loosening them.

This year, like last year, midnight mass in Bethlehem on Christmas Eve will be reserved for a small circle of people by invitation only.

 

Omicron variant of Covid-19 leaves shops and malls empty in Israel
This picture taken on December 15, 2021 shows a view of an empty restaurant in the biblical West Bank city of Bethlehem, during the otherwise traditionally high tourist season less than two weeks ahead of Christmas.
ABBAS MOMANI / AFP

 

 One customer

Before the Covid-19 pandemic, more than three million people visited Bethlehem on average each year.

More than a fifth of the city’s population is employed in tourism, and the jobless rate has risen from 23 percent to 35 percent through the pandemic, said Carmen Ghattas, spokeswoman for the municipality.

From her office overlooking Manger Square, where a life-sized Nativity scene has been installed at the foot of a towering tree, Ghattas laments she has no control over whether tourists can enter the city, even as other nations keep their borders open to vaccinated visitors.

“Here, tourists were not given this option. Tourists were just forbidden to enter and this affects our economy so badly,” she said.

The Palestinian Authority, the civil authority in parts of the West Bank, is mired in an economic crisis and has only offered affected workers in Bethlehem’s hard-hit tourism sector a one-time stipend of 700 shekels ($224).

Israeli hotels and workers, by contrast, have been compensated by the Jewish state.

An empty Manger square in Bethlehem due to the surge in the OmICRON VARIANT OF THE covid-19
Two men walk in the empty Manger Square outside the Church of the Nativity, traditionally believed to be the birthplace of Christ, in the biblical West Bank city of Bethlehem on December 15, 2021, as the square remains devoid of pilgrims less than two weeks ahead of Christmas. 
ABBAS MOMANI / AFP

 

“There is no work,” said Afram Shaheen, sitting outside his Armenian ceramics shop next to the Church of the Nativity, built on the site where the faithful believe Christ was born in a manger.

“I open the shop, drink a cup of coffee, and go home,” he told AFP, smoking a cigarette.

Shaheen said that since Bethlehem became the first Palestinian city to go into lockdown in March 2020, he has had just one customer, a French woman who bought $23 worth of ceramics — his total sales revenue so far during the pandemic.

Like many shop-owners catering to tourists in Bethlehem, Shaheen is selling old merchandise.

“I didn’t order anything new; there is no market, no demand.”

Next door, Nadia Hazboun sold olive wood icons and said the city’s workshops have ground to a halt.

“Many people sold their businesses,” she said, adding that in the absence of any government assistance, owners and employees were facing debt and lawsuits.

“This lockdown is a disaster,” she added, recalling days when she closed her store late at night.

Bethlehem has survived past crises, notably waves of unrest during the Israeli-Palestinian conflict that has also dampened tourism, and Shomali said residents were surviving on hope.

Asked if he believed next Christmas would be better, Shomali answered, “Next Christmas? I have hope for Easter.”

-AFP

COVID-19: From Wall Street To Bethlehem, Iconic Sites Reopen Across The World

A trader walks in front of the New York Stock Exchange (NYSE) on May 26, 2020 at Wall Street in New York City. Johannes EISELE / AFP
A trader walks in front of the New York Stock Exchange (NYSE) on May 26, 2020 at Wall Street in New York City. Johannes EISELE / AFP

 

Iconic world sites from the New York Stock Exchange to the Church of the Nativity reopened their doors Tuesday from the coronavirus pandemic, but new alarm bells rang in Latin America over a spike of infections.

In a symbolic return of a high altar of capitalism, the New York Stock Exchange — which had gone exclusively virtual for two months — allowed a limited number of traders to return to the trading floor, wearing masks to reduce the risk of infection.

The reopening boosted the mood as the benchmark Dow Jones index surged more than 2.2 percent, casting aside grim predictions that the world could be entering a new Great Depression after millions of job losses.

Visiting Wall Street, New York Governor Andrew Cuomo called for swift work on long-mulled mega-infrastructure projects such as subway extensions in the hard-hit metropolis.

“Let’s do something creative, let’s do it fast. Let’s put Americans back to work,” Cuomo told reporters.

There were also signs of hope at some of the world’s best-known destinations including the Church of the Nativity in Bethlehem, built on the spot where Christians believe their saviour Jesus was born.

The church’s opening “gives hope to the world that this pandemic will end,” said Rula Maaya, the Palestinian tourism minister.

The illness has killed more than 346,000 people worldwide and forced most countries to mothball their tourism industries, a crucial source of revenue.

‘Sense of emptiness’

In Italy, the global epicenter of infections after the virus spread to Europe from China, the site of a previous natural disaster also reopened to visitors — the ruins of the Roman city of Pompeii, destroyed by a volcanic eruption in 79 AD.

But the site, which attracted four million visitors last year, was largely deserted as foreign visitors are still banned from travel to Italy until next month.

“It’s only us guides, and journalists,” sighed 48-year-old Valentina Raffone, noting a “sense of emptiness, of sadness” as if after a disaster on the scale of the city’s end.

Italian Foreign Minister Luigi di Maio said he was working with EU colleagues to agree on June 15 as a coordinated day for member states to reopen their borders.

“We should save what we can save of the summer, to aid our entrepreneurs,” he said.

The Vatican too has relaxed its lockdown, announcing that Pope Francis will address the faithful once more from his window overlooking Saint Peter’s Square on Sunday.

And Russia said it had passed its peak of infections, promising to hold postponed World War II victory celebrations next month.

“The risks for all participants should be minimized, or even better, eliminated,” President Vladimir Putin said.

His announcement came as Russia recorded its highest daily coronavirus death toll of 174, with a caseload of 362,342, the third-highest number of infections in the world after the United States and Brazil.

Latin America epicenter

There was no mistaking that the coronavirus was taking a growing toll in South America.

With about 730,000 cases — out of 5.5 million globally — Latin America has outpaced Europe and the United States in the number of daily infections.

“In South America, we are particularly concerned that the number of new cases reported last week in Brazil was the highest for a seven-day period, since the outbreak began,” said Carissa Etienne, director of the Washington-based Pan American Health Organization.

“Both Peru and Chile are also reporting a high incidence, a sign that transmission is still accelerating in these countries,” she said at a weekly briefing.

Latin America’s largest airline LATAM, which has more than 42,000 employees, became the latest carrier to file for bankruptcy as COVID-19 devastates aviation.

Virus countermeasures have been especially politicized in Brazil, whose right-wing president, Jair Bolsonaro, has downplayed the illness and lashed out at state governors who have asked people to stay at home.

Police on Tuesday raided the official residence of one of Bolsonaro’s leading critics over the coronavirus response, Rio de Janeiro Governor Wilson Witzel, alleging that he embezzled public funds for the virus.

Witzel called the raid “political persecution” and warned: “What happened to me is going to happen to other governors who are considered enemies.”

Political controversies

Controversies surrounding the coronavirus have intensified around the world. In Britain, Prime Minister Boris Johnson is in crisis mode after his top aide, Dominic Cummings, flouted the government’s lockdown by taking a cross-country trip during the lockdown.

Douglas Ross, a minister for Scotland, resigned in protest, saying of families who could not mourn loved ones during the lockdown: “I cannot in good faith tell them they were all wrong and one senior advisor to the government was right.”

US President Donald Trump, an ally of both Johnson and Bolsonaro, has weathered a torrent of criticism for playing golf as the death toll in his country neared 100,000 on the weekend and for not wearing a mask in public.

Trump responded by retweeting criticism of his presumptive election rival, Joe Biden, for following health guidelines by wearing a mask during Memorial Day commemorations.

With barely five months before elections, Trump is eager to show a return to normal in the United States and tweeted Tuesday of the surge on Wall Street that the “Transition to Greatness has started.”

European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen is set on Wednesday to unveil her own trillion-euro proposal to revive the economy of the bloc, whose leaders are likely to argue over its details.

With the search for a vaccine potentially still in its infancy, the World Health Organization was left to ponder a very different development on Tuesday.

Two Dutch workers seem to have caught the disease from minks, which “would be the first known cases of animal-to-human transmission,” the UN health agency said.

The agency said pet owners should take precautions but there was “no reason or justification to take measures against companion animals.”

Bethlehem Welcomes Pilgrims For Christmas Celebrations

Tourists and pilgrims visit the Manger Square outside the Church of the Nativity in the biblical West Bank city of Bethlehem on December 24, 2019.  HAZEM BADER / AFP

 

Pilgrims from around the world gathered Tuesday in the biblical city of Bethlehem, revered by Christians as the birthplace of Jesus, ushering in Christmas celebrations across the globe.

Thousands of Palestinians and foreigners converged on the “little town” in the Israeli-occupied West Bank, with Christmas Eve festivities taking place in and around the Church of the Nativity.

Archbishop Pierbattista Pizzaballa, the apostolic administrator of the Latin Patriarch of Jerusalem and the most senior Roman Catholic official in the Middle East, arrived from the holy city at the head of a procession.

Bethlehem is close to Jerusalem but cut off from it by Israel’s separation barrier.

After crossing through the wall, Pizzaballa said it was a difficult time but there was a reason for “hope”.

“We see in this period the weakness of politics, enormous economic problems, unemployment, problems in families,” he said.

“On the other side, when I visit families, parishes, communities, I see a lot of commitment… for the future.

“Christmas is for us to celebrate the hope.”

In the square outside the church, a few thousand people watched in the winter sun as Palestinian scouts paraded in front of a 15-metre Christmas tree.

“The church is beautiful and it puts what we know in the Bible (in) place,” said Laneda, an American tourist visiting the site.

“Everything is just very meaningful.”

As evening fell, crowds thinned as the church closed to tourists ahead of midnight mass, which Pizzaballa was to lead, with Palestinian president Mahmud Abbas expected to attend.

Pope Francis was set to address the world’s 1.3 billion Catholics late Tuesday evening.

‘Bumpy year’

The first church was built on the site of Jesus’s birth in the fourth century, though it was replaced after a fire in the sixth century.

This year celebrations were bolstered by the return of a wooden fragment believed to be from the manger of Jesus.

Sent as a gift to Pope Theodore I in 640, the piece had been in Europe for more than 1,300 years before being returned last month, Francesco Patton, chief custodian for the Holy Land, said.

“We venerate the relic because (it) reminds us of the mystery of incarnation, to the fact that the son of God was born of Mary in Bethlehem more than 2,000 years ago,” Patton told AFP at the time.

In the square by the church, Palestinian tourism minister Rula Maayah told AFP it had been a good year, with 3.5 million tourists visiting the city.

But fewer Christians from the Gaza Strip were in attendance than in previous years, as Israel had granted permits to just around 300 of some 900 people who applied, said Wadie Abunassar, an adviser to church leaders in the Holy Land.

The Palestinian territories of the West Bank and Gaza are separated by Israeli territory and crossing between them requires hard-to-get permits.

Around the world, people were getting ready to ring in the Christmas festivities.

In her traditional Christmas Day message, Britain’s Queen Elizabeth II was to describe 2019 as “quite bumpy” after a year of crises in the royal family.

In France, travellers were meanwhile facing more woe in the bitter nearly-three week strike by train drivers fighting government pension reform plans.

The walkout has ruined Christmas travel plans for tens of thousands of French ticket holders unable to reach loved ones in time for Christmas Day.

A frantic scramble for gift promotions left a dozen people injured in an Australian mall.

But in Hong Kong chaos broke out in an upscale mall after pro-democracy protesters planned a series of Christmas Ever demonstrations.

And in the central Philippines, where Christmas is widely celebrated among the country’s Catholics, thousands of people were warned to leave their homes as a severe tropical storm approached.

AFP

Pilgrims Gather In Bethlehem For Christmas Celebration

Christian pilgrims visit the Church of the Nativity in the biblical West Bank city of Bethlehem on December 24, 2019. Pilgrims from around the world gathered today in the biblical city of Bethlehem, revered by Christians as the birthplace of Jesus, to celebrate Christmas in the Holy Land.
HAZEM BADER / AFP

 

Pilgrims from around the world gathered Tuesday in the biblical city of Bethlehem, revered by Christians as the birthplace of Jesus, to celebrate Christmas in the Holy Land.

Palestinians and foreigners began converging on the  “little town” in the Israeli-occupied West Bank from early morning, with Christmas Eve festivities taking place in and around the Church of the Nativity.

Tourists queued to visit the grotto inside the church, believed to be the exact site where Jesus was born, with Ola, a Nigerian visitor, saying it was a “special day.”

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Outside in the winter sun, hundreds watched as Palestinian scouts paraded to the sound of drums.

“I feel really emotional to be here today, it’s wonderful,” said Germana, an Italian travelling with her husband and two children.

Archbishop Pierbattista Pizzaballa, an apostolic administrator of the Latin Patriarch of Jerusalem and the most senior Roman Catholic official in the Middle East, was due to travel from Jerusalem to Bethlehem on Tuesday morning.

He will lead midnight mass in the Church of the Nativity, with Palestinian president Mahmud Abbas expected to attend.

Bethlehem is close to Jerusalem but cut off from the holy city by Israel’s separation barrier.

The first church was built on the site in the fourth century, though it was replaced after a fire in the sixth century.

This year celebrations were bolstered by the return of a wooden fragment believed to be from the manger of Jesus.

Sent as a gift to Pope Theodore I in 640, the piece had been in Europe for more than 1,300 years before being returned last month, Francesco Patton, chief custodian for the Holy Land, said.

“We venerate the relic because (it) reminds us of the mystery of incarnation, to the fact that the son of God was born of Mary in Bethlehem more than 2,000 years ago,” Patton told AFP at the time.

‘Tough Christmas In Gaza’

In the square by the church, Palestinian tourism minister Rula Maaya told AFP it had been a good year, with 3.5 million tourists visiting the city.

But fewer Christians from the Gaza Strip were in attendance than in previous years, as Israel granted permits to just around 200 of some 900 people who applied, said Wadie Abunassar, an adviser to church leaders in the Holy Land.

The Palestinian territories of the West Bank and Gaza are separated by Israeli territory and crossing between them requires hard-to-get permits.

Abunassar said Christmas remained a time for hope.

“The Holy Land is not only the site of the birth and crucifixion (of Jesus), it is also the place of resurrection,” he told AFP.

“Despite all challenges, difficulties, pain and problems we are facing, we keep the hope in God and people.”

‘Bumpy Year’

Around the world, people were getting ready to ring in the Christmas festivities.

In her traditional Christmas Day message, Britain’s Queen Elizabeth II was to describe 2019 as “quite bumpy” after a year of crises in the royal family.

In France, travellers were meanwhile in for more woe in the bitter nearly-three week strike by train drivers fighting government pension reform plans.

The walkout has ruined Christmas travel plans for tens of thousands of French ticket holders unable to reach loved ones in time for Christmas Day.

A frantic scramble for gift promotions left a dozen people injured in an Australian mall.

And in the central Philippines, where Christmas is widely celebrated among the country’s Catholics, thousands of people were warned to leave their homes as a severe tropical storm approached.

AFP

Fragment Of Jesus’ Manger Arrives In Bethlehem From Europe

The Custos of the Holy Land Francesco Patton (C-L), carries the Relic of the Holy Crib of the Child Jesus, during a procession at the Church of the Nativity compound in Bethlehem on November 30, 2019, initiating celebrations for the arrival of the relic, a gift from the Pope Francis to the Custody of the Holy Land. Musa Al SHAER / AFP

 

 

A wooden fragment believed to be from the manger of Jesus arrived in his birthplace of Bethlehem on Saturday amid great ceremony after more than 1,300 years in Europe.

A Palestinian scout band playing bagpipes, drums and saxophones accompanied the relic as it arrived in Manger Square, an AFP reporter said.

Housed in Rome since the seventh century, the relic had been presented to the Franciscan custodians of the Holy Land as a gift from the Vatican.

Worshippers thronged the square as the chief custodian for the Holy Land, Francesco Patton, carried the ornate reliquary housing the relic into the Saint Catherine Church next to the Church of the Nativity, where he led mass.

On Friday Patton told AFP that the seventh-century Latin Patriarch of Jerusalem, Sophronius, had sent the relic to Rome in around 640 as a gift to Pope Theodore I.

Now the item, about a centimetre wide by 2.5 centimetres (an inch) long, is to be installed “for ever” in Bethlehem, he said.

“We venerate the relic because (it) reminds us of the mystery of incarnation, to the fact that the son of God was born of Mary in Bethlehem more than 2,000 years ago,” Patton said.

Bethlehem has planned celebrations stretching until Christmas for the homecoming.

Palestinian president Mahmud Abbas had asked Pope Francis to repatriate the crib fragment during his visit to the Vatican for Middle East peace talks in December 2018, said Palestinian envoy to the Holy See, Issa Kassissieh.

AFP

Christmas: A New App Is Born At The Birthplace Of Jesus

 

Bethlehem is buzzing, with more tourists expected this Christmas than have visited the Biblical city in years, causing the kind of problem that modern technology was almost born to deal with.

Such are the crowds at the church built on the site where Jesus is believed to have been born that the authorities are planning to introduce an advance reservation system through an app.

The app, which will be introduced early next year, is aimed at ensuring a regular flow of tourists at the Church of the Nativity, where at busy times visitors wait hours to see the underground grotto where Christians believe Jesus was born in a manger.

Details of the app, which will be in English to start, are still being worked out.

One priest said it would only apply to tour groups visiting the site in the Israeli-occupied West Bank, but the Palestinian tourism ministry said it would be for everyone.

READ ALSO: US-Led Coalition Air Strikes Leaves 27 Dead In Eastern Syria

While there are concerns visits could become unnecessarily complicated, the three churches that share control of the site — the Catholics, Greek Orthodox and the Armenian Church — say such an app is needed.

“There are times when for us there are specific prayers, celebrations, or masses, or with all the sects praying,” Orthodox priest Issa Thaljieh said outside the church.

“So of course there is a huge squeeze. With the app, everyone will know what time to enter and which groups are there, so it will become more organised.”

The first church was built on the site in the fourth century, though it was replaced after a fire in the sixth century. Its mosaics were recently restored in a major project.

Palestinian deputy tourism minister Ali Abu Srour said the app would also provide information about the church.

“We are going digital with this issue,” he told AFP in his office in Bethlehem.

– Record year –
Barbora Salyova, a 29-year-old tourist visiting Israel and Jordan from Slovakia, said the app could be useful for pilgrims like herself.

“This is a step we definitely planned to make,” she said. “We also came for religious reasons so this was an automatic stop.”

Tourism in Bethlehem is enjoying its best season in years, with hotels reporting especially high occupancy rates for the Christmas period, said Elias Al-Arja, chairman of the Hotels Association Palestine.

“We had occupancy rates of 74 or 72 percent in 2018,” he said, adding that it is expected to rise later in December.

In total around 2.8 million tourists have visited the Palestinian territories this year, up from 2.5 million last year, according to the tourism ministry.

Abu Srour said the primary reason is a decrease in violence in Jerusalem and the West Bank this year.

The ministry has reached out to new tourists in locations across the globe, he said.

Israel is also enjoying record tourism figures and many visitors take day trips to Bethlehem and other West Bank sites from Tel Aviv, Jerusalem and elsewhere in the Jewish state.

Israeli Army Kills Palestinian Teenager In Bethlehem

Israeli troops take a position as they clash with Palestinian youth in the Amari refugee camp near Ramallah in the occupied West Bank after they stormed the camp. ABBAS MOMANI / AFP

 

Israeli soldiers shot dead a Palestinian teenager during a raid in the occupied West Bank overnight, the Palestinian health ministry said on Monday.

Arkan Mizher, 15, was shot in the chest during clashes in Dheisheh refugee camp in Bethlehem, in the southern West Bank, the ministry said.

His funeral was due to take place later Monday.

The Israeli army said its forces had entered the camp and arrested two people suspected of “terror activity”.

“During the operation, a violent riot was instigated in which Palestinians hurled rocks and threw firebombs and grenades at (Israeli) soldiers,” the army said in a statement.

Soldiers fired live rounds at the protesters, the statement added.

The camp is in a part of the West Bank supposedly under full Palestinian control but the Israeli army regularly carries out raids in such areas.

It says the operations are necessary to arrest suspects, but they often spark violent clashes with young Palestinians.

AFP

Diplomats Seek To End Bloodshed Between Israel And Palestines

Palestinian medic inspects a damaged room at Al-Aqsa hospital, which witnesses said was damaged in Israeli shelling on Monday, in Deir El-Balah in the central Gaza Strip Israeli forces pounded multiple sites across the Gaza Strip on Wednesday, including the enclave’s sole power plant, and said it was meeting stiff resistance from Hamas Islamists, as diplomats sought to end the bloodshed.

In a blow to Israel’s economy, U.S. and European air carriers halted flights in and out of Tel Aviv citing security worries after a militant rocket from Gaza hit a house near the airport. Israel urged a re-think, saying its airspace was safe.

U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry was in Egypt and U.N. Secretary General Ban Ki-moon in Israel, spearheading international efforts to secure a ceasefire. Hamas ally Qatar was also working in the background to seek a solution.

Israel launched its offensive on July 8 to halt missile salvoes by Hamas Islamists, which was angered by a crackdown on its supporters in the nearby occupied West Bank and suffering economic hardship because of an Israeli-Egyptian blockade.

After failing to halt the militant barrage through days of aerial bombardment, Israel sent ground troops into Gaza last Thursday, looking to knock out Hamas’s missile stores and destroy a vast, underground network of tunnels.

Some 630 Palestinians, many of them children and civilians have died in the conflagration, including a seven-year-old hit by a shell in southern Gaza early on Wednesday, a medic said.

Some 29 Israeli soldiers have been killed, including a tank officer who was shot by a Palestinian sniper overnight. Two civilians have been slain by rocket fire. The military says one of its soldiers is also missing and believes he might be dead. Hamas says it has seized him, but has not released his picture.

Clouds of black smoke hung over the densely populated Mediterranean enclave, with the regular thud of artillery and tank shells filling the air.

“We are meeting resistance around the tunnels … they are constantly trying to attack us around and in the tunnels. That is the trend,” said Israeli military spokesman Lieutenant-Colonel Peter Lerner.

He said 30 militant gunmen had been killed overnight, bringing the total to 210 since the offensive started.

Hamas’s armed wing, the Izz el-Deen Al-Qassam, said its fighters had detonated an anti-personnel bomb as an Israeli army patrol passed, killing several troops. There was no immediate confirmation from Israel.

There was also violence in the occupied West Bank, where a Palestinian was shot dead by Israeli troops near Bethlehem. The army said soldiers fired a rubber bullet at him during clashes with Palestinians hurling rocks and Molotov cocktails.