Christmas tree in Bethlehem
Christmas tree in Bethlehem Flash 90

Bethlehem Mayor Victor Batarseh lashed out at Israel this week at a tree-lighting ceremony in honor of the Christmas holiday. He accused Israel of cutting Bethlehem off from “its twin city Jerusalem” and called for international sanctions.

“Trade sanctions, sports sanctions, educational sanctions, cultural sanctions. Sanctions are the only way,” he said. Batarseh added that it would be “a waste of time” to negotiate with Israel.

He also accused Israel of profiting off tourism to Bethlehem. While tourists visit Bethlehem during the day, most return to Jerusalem to spend the night.

He slammed Israel for building a security wall between Bethlehem and Jerusalem. The wall was built after several years in which PA terrorists frequently infiltrated Jerusalem from the Bethlehem region to carry out suicide bombings and other attacks.

Batarseh's criticism followed one of Bethlehem's best years for tourism. A record 1.4 million tourists visited the city in 2010, and another 90,000 are expected to arrive during the Christmas holidays.

Israel has worked to boost tourism to Bethlehem by coordinating with the PA to ease travel. Among other things, the Tourism Ministry has arranged for free shuttle transport between Jerusalem and Bethlehem. In addition, Israeli and PA tourism officials have cooperated on promoting tourism to the city.

The increase in tourism has been a major boost to the Bethlehem economy. Tourist shops and restaurant owners report increased profits, hotels are filled to capacity, and new hotels are planned.

Ironically, while Christian tourism to Bethlehem and Jerusalem is on the rise, the Christian population of both cities continues to drop. The Christian population of Jerusalem has dropped from 20% to just 2% between 1946 and 2009, while in Bethlehem the Christian population has fallen to an estimated 15% from 60% over the course of 20 years. Experts have blamed the drop in the Christian population in large part on Muslim harassment, which is encouraged by the PA and PA laws based in Sharia Islamic law.