Media around the world are painting a grim picture of Bethlehem a few days before Christmas - and blaming it on Israel.
HonestReporting.com cites sample articles from the New Statesman and the Baltimore Sun. According to the Sun,
"A towering wall of gray concrete slabs, 30 feet high, cuts across what was once the main road into this town from Jerusalem. Just inside the barrier, past a new Israeli security terminal, a once-bustling neighborhood has become a ghost town. Shops are shuttered or empty, and the streets are deserted."
Buried several paragraphs later is the fact that tourism to Bethlehem is actually up:
"Figures kept by the Bethlehem Municipality show a rebound in tourist visits... the numbers have climbed steadily since , reaching 100,000 in 2004 and 252,000 this year."
Yet this does not stop the paper from writing, just two paragraphs later,
"The deteriorating economy [emphasis added] has led to a steady exodus of the city's Christian residents, once a majority and now estimated at about 35 percent of the total population of 30,000."
The Statesman claims,
"The flicker of optimism has been dampened by the completion of the barrier around Bethlehem and the installation of the gate, which has given a sense of permanence to the isolation and the economy's free fall. The crossing is daunting even for tourists who are searched on their coaches as they enter Bethlehem."
HonestReporting notes that according to the Israeli Ministry of Foreign Affairs, each one of these points is factually incorrect:
* There is no barrier that completely encircles Bethlehem. A fence exists only where the Bethlehem area interfaces with Jerusalem, and only a very small segment of the fence is a concrete wall, which prevents terrorists from shooting at Israeli motorists.
* The economy has actually improved significantly. Tourism has doubled compared to last year, and Bethlehem's main industries are also up: Textiles by 50%, stone and marble export by 40%, and commercial transportation 20%. These increases have brought millions of dollars into the local economy.
* The IDF has decided to take a "calculated risk" to make access easier for tourists. IDF Lt.-Col. Aviv Feigel said, "The military will try to speed the process by not checking every tourist bus, but conducting spot checks of random buses instead."
The New Statesman also raps Israel for pushing Christians out of Bethlehem. But as FrontPage magazine points out, it is actually the Muslims who have been forcing the city's Christian residents to leave:
"The Vatican, in a rare diplomatic move, called publicly on the Israelis to intervene in Bethlehem on behalf of its severely receding Christian population. Now totaling less than 12% of Bethlehem's population, Christians, who have been the targets of continual PA violence, might leave entirely."
Just this week, some 20 Fatah Al-Aqsa gunmen disrupted Christmas preparations in Bethlehem, taking over the municipality building across from the Church of Nativity and demanding police jobs or payment from the Palestinian Authority. Click here for a detailed report on Muslim violence against Christians that is largely ignored by the media.
HonestReporting did not cite BBC, which reported on Thursday on the financial hardships of a Bethlehem Christian named Nasim Bannoura. The BBC report concluded, "Curfews, closures and the newly-built West Bank barrier have cut him off from business in Jerusalem."
Only towards the end of the report is it stated, "A few Christians speak privately of harassment, Muslims seizing Christian land and the fear of speaking out against radical groups" - but this is followed immediately by, "But many others say they live like brothers with their Muslim neighbours, sharing the struggle against Israeli occupation."
Israel Army Radio reported Friday that Israel will institute special shuttle buses to Bethlehem this weekend, in order to ease travel for tourists. "The number of holiday tourists to Bethlehem is expected to be lower than usual this year," the report stated, "because of the continuing tensions between Israel and the Palestinian Authority, and tensions between various factions in the Palestinian Authority itself."