“A tourist gets to Bethlehem to visit the Nativity and goes into bus and disappears,” said Vera Baboun, the city's mayor.
Jerusalem and Bethlehem have long been intertwined, she said, but no more. Some 22 settlements and Israel’s separation wall, which cuts through Bethlehem and separates the two cities, have left the birthplace of Jesus isolated.
“This separation of the twinning between Bethlehem and Jerusalem is highly affecting the demography and the nature of practicing the faith,” Baboun said.
Approximately 82 percent of Bethlehem falls inside the territory designated Area C under the Oslo Accords, which means it remains under direct Israeli military and administrative control. As a result, some sites of significance to pilgrims — such as Wadi Khreitoun, home to one of the oldest monasteries in the Holy Land, and Qumran, where the Dead Sea scrolls were found — cannot be administered by the Palestinian authorities.
Israel has developed walking trails across most of the occupied West Bank and East Jerusalem. One of the most popular — the Israel trail — goes through Khreitoun and Herodion, a fortress dating back to King Herod's time, and leads back to Jerusalem. Income generated from tourists using this trail and visiting sites in Area C flows directly to Israel.
The Palestinian Authority, which has no airport or control over borders, is also deprived of potential revenue from Muslim and Arab would-be visitors who struggle to obtain Israeli visas to enter the territory.
“In a best-case scenario where we have sovereignty, control of borders, and those sites back to us, we're talking about [a revenue of] $1.8 billion [generated for Palestinians] yearly,” Qattan said.
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