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American aid money is helping deck the town of Bethlehem for Christmas this year. The traditional birthplace of Jesus is the single biggest tourist attraction in the Israeli-occupied West Bank. It hosts nearly two million visitors a year. The U.S. donation is intended to boost the Palestinian economy. As NPR's Emily Harris reports, there are some challenges to the success of that investment.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

OMAR KAMAL: (Singing) Gloria. Gloria. Gloria.

EMILY HARRIS, BYLINE: Monday night on Manger Square in Bethlehem, singer Omar Kamal entertained a crowd of several hundred people. Young men met friends, parents snapped pictures of children by a nativity scene next to a giant artificial Christmas tree. Suhair Issa lives steps away. She loves it here at Christmas.

SUHAIR ISSA: Most people they come at, you know, at night. They like to drink and eat and buy sweets. So, yeah, it's very nice to be like this.

HARRIS: The tree, entertainment and a small Christmas market are staples of the season here. But this year, everything's scaled up. More music, more booths for more days of shopping. Some money came from Palestinian companies, but the U.S. contributed the lion's share, nearly $400,000. Bethlehem Mayor Vera Baboun.

MAYOR VERA BABOUN: It was very important to enhance the number of activities in the city, the Christmas decoration in the city. And that added to give more life to the city.

HARRIS: Bethlehem is still more of a little town than a city. About 20,000 people live here. Over 20 percent are unemployed. David Harden, director of the U.S. Agency for International Development West Bank mission, says the U.S. money to boost Christmas tourism is part of a bigger vision to help the local economy.

DAVID HARDEN: Not only our - is our goal to increase the number of visitors to Bethlehem, but we would like to help the municipality improve the experience of the tourists, have tourists stay longer, spend more money. So we think that the whole opportunity there is extraordinary.

HARRIS: Twelve new hotels opened in Bethlehem this year. But local activist Mazen al-Aza saw a different opportunity in the U.S. assistance.

MAZEN AL-AZA: (Through Translator) The catalysts for this idea were the signs all over Manger Square saying, USAID, A gift from the American people. That made me decide I need to tell the American people the reality.

HARRIS: He and friends decorated a small tree on Manger Square with spent gas canisters shot by Israeli soldiers during Palestinian protests. He wanted to remind visitors that the U.S. gives Israel $3 billion in military aid every year. Some of the vendors at this year's Christmas market blamed Israel's separation wall and military checkpoint at the main entrance to Bethlehem for keeping sales disappointingly low.

Officials blamed the weather, including a record snowstorm. The number of visitors to Bethlehem has risen steadily over the past several years. But tour operator Fadi Kattan says few spend money here.

FADI KATTAN: Those tourists, which are pilgrims, come to Bethlehem. The bus parks at the central parking station. The pilgrims are walked into the church. They visit the church, they go out, and they go back to Jerusalem or any other place out of the West Bank.

HARRIS: The vast majority of visitors arrive with an Israeli guide. On Christmas Eve and day, they even get a special gift from Israel. This year, it's chocolates and a set of coasters.

AHUVA ZAKEN: We look at Bethlehem as part of the product.

HARRIS: Ahuva Zaken is deputy director of Israel's Tourism Ministry.

ZAKEN: Every tourist who arrives to Israel, to the Holy Land for religious reasons cannot really skip Bethlehem.

HARRIS: Palestinians take issue with Israel's branding, saying tourists arriving in Bethlehem are visiting Palestine. USAID says increasing the share of tourist dollars spent in the birthplace of Christ would help everybody. Emily Harris, NPR News.

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