Occupied economy: winter in Palestine

By EA Michaela

EA Michaela served in Bethlehem from January-April 2014, returning to Palestine for three months this year to conduct research for an NGO and work as a freelance photographer. Here she reflects on visiting again and the worsening economic conditions she found in the town of Jesus’ birth.

In the shadow of last year’s war on Gaza which left over 2,000 people dead and a surge in unpredictable hostilities in Jerusalem, thousands of international pilgrims cancelled their travel plans to Bethlehem this winter leaving the cold, wet streets deserted.

Tourism minister Rula Ma’ayeh reported that 60 per cent of accommodation bookings for Palestine were cancelled in the wake of the attack and Bethlehem business owners described a financially disastrous Christmas period.

Twenty-two-year-old Khader Hadweh has managed the Peace Centre restaurant in Bethlehem’s Manger Square since last September. Warm and welcoming, Khader still manages a smile while surrounded by empty seats throughout the punishing winter. For someone so young, he is enduring first hand the problems with Bethlehem’s economy. He tells me the restaurant needs to clear $6,000 a month just to cover rent and overheads and that he is hopeful summer will be better.

Tear gas canisters are used as decorations on trees in Manger Square over the Christmas period [Credit: M. Whitton]

Tear gas canisters are used as decorations on trees in Manger Square over the Christmas period [Credit: M. Whitton]

In air thick with desperation, groups of middle aged tour guides compete for customers outside the Church of the Nativity, with many spending their spare time learning a second language to improve employability. Morning and night, streams of empty taxis circle the city touting for business. Shop owners in thick scarves and coats call ‘welcome’ while shivering in doorways and ever present groups of young men shroud every corner. The town where Jesus was reportedly born that should be the jewel in the crown of Palestinian tourism is equally famous for its chronic unemployment.

Palestinian shop owners at Manger Square [Credit: M. Whitton]

Palestinian shop owners at Manger Square [Credit: M. Whitton]

In Manger Square a billboard reads ‘The Tourist’s Guide to the Occupation’. Not many read it. The 1.5m annual visitors are whisked into Bethlehem for two-hour periods which include a visit to the Church of the Nativity and one or two selected souvenir shops and restaurants that can afford to pay high commission fees to guides. Most pilgrims return to Jerusalem to spend the night, despite Bethlehem having 2,000 hotel rooms of its own.

Those that can leave Palestine do.  In 2011,  the Latin Patriarch of Jerusalem, Fouad Twal, expressed concern “that the Holy Land would become a Spiritual  Disneyland – full of glittering rides and attractions but empty of its indigenous Christian population”.

Emigration is not just a Christian issue. The head of religious studies at Bethlehem University, Father Iyad Twal, estimates at least 500,000 Muslims have left Palestine since the occupation started in 1967. Dwindling numbers are more starkly seen in the Christian population – now estimated to be only two per cent of the population – but Palestinians are keen to stress emigration is a national and economic issue, not a religious one. According to Father Twal, 15,000 Israelis a year are also leaving the country with more than half having a second passport. Despite frequent announcements of more construction, many properties in Israeli settlements are empty.

Palestinians plant olive tree saplings on land in Wadi Foukin overlooked by Beitar Illit settlement [Credit: M. Whitton]

Palestinians plant olive tree saplings on land in Wadi Foukin overlooked by Beitar Illit settlement [Credit: M. Whitton]

January figures released by the Palestinian Central Bureau of Statistics claim that of the 32,000 students who graduate per year from Palestinian universities, 56% remain unemployed. Locals told me about friends with undergraduate and Masters degrees working in Israel in construction or needing to take second jobs. Opportunities for specialists such as doctors, scientists, teachers are so limited that graduates are applying for jobs in the Gulf and Jordan. One man called it an “emigration of the minds”.

Samir, the head of a local Bethlehem organisation, told me about his five daughters, three of whom studied abroad. One is in London and he’s convinced she won’t return to Palestine. His middle daughter studied fashion and after 12 years abroad he said he encouraged her to come back but people thought she was crazy, asking, ”Why have you come to live in a ghetto?” The third daughter recently emigrated to Cyprus for work.

“For 12 years me and my wife supported them to study, three of them have Masters degrees. That education was supposed to be their insurance,” said Samir.

In Bethlehem’s surrounding villages the situation is equally bleak and the situation on the ground had clearly deteriorated since I served as an EA last year. Freshly confiscated swathes of land gobble up hilltops as Israeli settlements encroach further into Palestinian village life.

Palestinians demonstrate on land confiscated by the Israeli authorities in the village of Wadi Foukin [Credit: M. Whitton]

Palestinians demonstrate on land confiscated by the Israeli authorities in the village of Wadi Foukin [Credit: M. Whitton]

Leaving after three months which uncovered another layer to the occupation of Palestine, I was inclined to agree with the words of one Bethlehem Christian who said:

“Occupation is not just about guns, it’s the breaking of the spirit, the soul and the community infrastructure.”