It was August, but the Italian pilgrims were already singing Christmas carols when their air-conditioned tour buses pulled up to the Israeli army checkpoint.
But no, they were told firmly. Bethlehem was closed. Due to security concerns, they would not be able to visit the Church of the Nateral in Jerusalem. The Israeli tourism minister interceded with the defense minister. The Italians, about 600 people riding 16 tour buses, eventually were admitted.
But no quick solution, diplomatic or otherwise, seems imminent between Israelis and Palestinians in a stalemate whose latest flash point is Bethlehem.
Michael Stoltz, a spokesman for Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, said Tuesday that Bethlehem was closed because of intelligence reports terrorists responsible for the July 30 market bombing might be lurking within the city and its environs.
Netanyahu himself, however, appeared to suggest otherwise in comments he made to reporters during a trade mission to Japan Tuesday: “It’s the kind of sanction the United States and the international community applied to Libya and to Iraq and to Iran when these regimes proved unwilling to stop the support of terrorism or the abetting of terrorism,” he said in a speech to the Foreign Correspondents’ Club of Japan.
In Bethlehem, violence has flared up the past two days in the midst of protests against the closures. Tuesday, about a dozen third- and-fourth grade Palestinian girls were treated for tear gas inhalation when gas canisters thrown by the Israeli army mistakenly landed in the courtyard of a school near a checkpoint where Palestinian youths were throwing rocks.
Bethlehem, of all the cities under Palestinian self-rule administration, is an economic jewel - an international tourist attraction rivaling the holy sites of Jerusalem’s Old City. Normally during the summer, Manger Square, in front of the church, is jammed with buses, while tourists snack on hummus and load up on souvenirs.
Bethlehem’s mayor, Hanna Nasser, said Tuesday economic damages from the closure have reached about $12 million. About 8,000 Bethlehem residents - roughly one-fifth of the work force - have been unable to commute to their jobs in Israel because of the closure. In addition, the mayor said, the normal average of 3,000 visitors per day has dwindled to just a handful of tour buses - those that manage to bypass the Israeli military checkpoints on back roads.
Ironically, Bethlehem has a reputation of being far less radical than other parts of the West Bank. Its large population of Christian Arabs and its relative wealth have made militant groups like Hamas and Islamic Jihad less popular here than in Hebron or Nablus.
Bethlehem officials, backed by Palestinian leader Yasir Arafat, have issued urgent appeals for the lifting of the sanctions against Bethlehem to the Vatican and the European Union, among others - and so far they appear to have elicited considerable sympathy.
Netanyahu was rebuked during his trade mission by senior Japanese officials for the closure of Bethlehem, according to reports in the Israeli press. U.S. envoy Dennis Ross, during his visit to Israeli earlier this month, also told reporters measures against the Palestinians that were “not related to security,” were “counterproductive” and a strong Palestinian economy was considered essential to build a lasting peace.
At the same time, the State Department has backed up Netanyahu on his insistence the Palestinian Authority take concrete measures to crack down on terrorism before negotiations for a continued Israeli withdrawal from the West Bank can continue. The State Department also criticized Arafat for threatening an armed uprising against Israel - a comment he made at a meeting in which he embraced leaders of Hamas and Islamic Jihad, groups that have taken responsibility for terrorist attacks against Israeli civilians.
At the heart of the current dispute is an Israeli demand the Palestinians arrest about 200 activists in Hamas, a radical Islamic movement opposed to the peace process.
Col. Kamal Al-Sheikh, the Bethlehem chief of police, said in an interview Tuesday his officers were cooperating with Israeli security, but only to a point.
“If I were to do everything that the Israelis were asking, I’d have to put one-third of the Palestinian population in prison,” he said.
Sheikh said his department had arrested 14 people in the Bethlehem area for questioning in the market bombing. They also unearthed a suspected bomb manufacturing workshop in the neighboring village of Beit Sahour, although Israeli and Palestinian security, in conjunction with the CIA, later concluded the explosives found in Beit Sahour were different than those used in the market bombings on July 30.