LIANE HANSEN, host:
At the Vatican yesterday, Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas met with Pope Benedict XVI. The stalled Middle East peace process was at the top of the agenda, and Abbas invited the pope to visit Bethlehem, the birthplace of Jesus. In Bethlehem, Israel has just completed a new section of a controversial security wall that stretches through Jerusalem and the West Bank. Bethlehem and Jerusalem are the two most popular sites for tourists to the Holy Land. Bethlehem residents who are struggling economically say the barrier hurts tourism. Israel says the new passage balances security and free movement. NPR's Eric Westervelt has more.
(Soundbite of squeaking of gate)
ERIC WESTERVELT reporting:
Palestinian laborer Mahmoud Eashi(ph) and two co-workers put the finishing touches on a high rotating metal gate at Israel's new crossing point into Bethlehem.
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WESTERVELT: The Bethlehem resident says he's conflicted about Israel's daunting, 26-foot-high concrete wall and high-tech checkpoint that he has helped to build.
Mr. MAHMOUD EASHI (Palestinian Laborer): (Through Translator) They are trying to put as many constraints as they can on the people, on the movement of the people. I feel confused. My opinions definitely do not reflect my work. I am here a worker. I need work, but my opinions are something else.
WESTERVELT: Bethlehem's mayor, Victor Batarseh, says the security fence, with its giant metal gate, guard tower and armed sentries, amounts to, quote, "economic warfare against Bethlehem."
Mayor VICTOR BATARSEH (Bethlehem): The city of Bethlehem now lives in a big prison due to the wall of separation.
WESTERVELT: With violence in the Arab-Israeli conflict down sharply this year, tourism to Bethlehem has almost tripled from 75,000 in 2004 to nearly 220,000 so far this year. But that's still way down from five years ago. Before the second intifada or uprising began in the fall of 2000, almost a million tourists and Christian pilgrims visited the birthplace of Jesus annually. Bethlehem Mayor Batarseh, a Christian Palestinian, says as tourism bounces back, Israel has effectively sealed off his city from Jerusalem just in time for the Christmas rush.
Mayor BATARSEH: They are having very, very complicated security checks on that gate. This will hinder tourism again. We want tourists to come here and sleep in Bethlehem for a couple of nights. But with this obstacle now, this might let tourists think twice before coming and staying in Bethlehem.
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WESTERVELT: Israeli officials say the hourlong delays for tour buses are over, saying they were the result of temporary confusion after opening a new crossing. That was born out on a recent visit. On leaving Bethlehem, visitors still have to disembark and clear a passport check while the bus is swept for explosives. But on this day anyway, packed buses clear through in 10 to 15 minutes or less. Guide Gershan Karpek(ph) says so far few tourists have complained, but he wonders if it'll run as smoothly come Christmas.
Mr. GERSHAN KARPEK (Guide): I think the Christmas rush is going to be more difficult, right? But even before the wall and before the gates and before that, it was not easy, I mean, in Bethlehem at Christmastime.
WESTERVELT: Israeli security officials say they hope ordinary tourists recognize what Israel calls the security barrier is succeeding in stopping Palestinian suicide bombers. Israel says in 2004, terrorists who came through Bethlehem were responsible for half the suicide bombing fatalities that year.
Lieutenant Colonel AVEV FIGEL(ph) (Israel): So I'm sure that Mrs. Jones can understand our security problem with the Palestinian terror.
WESTERVELT: Israeli Lieutenant Colonel Avev Figel is a top security official in Bethlehem.
Lt. Col. FIGEL: It seems like Bethlehem, it's a quiet place, but don't be mistake with it. The Palestinians are complaining because they prefer, of course, that people will not be checked, and they want to interfere in our security measures.
WESTERVELT: The birthplace of Jesus Christ has other big troubles beyond the security dispute. The Palestinian West Bank City is bankrupt. Unemployment is at almost 50 percent. Many residents haven't paid their taxes in years. And Mayor Batarseh says Palestinian Authority hasn't paid Bethlehem its share of tax revenue for a year and a half. City workers who clean and prep the streets for the holidays haven't been paid for November or December.
Mayor BATARSEH: It is the responsibility of the Palestinian Authority, and they should do something for the city. Actually they have done nothing. I don't know from where I'm going to get the money to pay the sellers, and Christmas is coming and we are in big trouble.
WESTERVELT: The mayor says he's appealed to the leaders of nearly every major Christian sect about both his security wall concerns and the fact that the little town of Bethlehem is broke. Eric Westervelt, NPR News, Bethlehem.
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