Arriving at the holy city of Bethlehem in the midst of war

Contrary to warnings about “long lines” at one time, Ian Neubauer was one of the few visitors to the holy city of Bethlehem, when the Gaza war lasted 7 months.

Australian tourist Ian Lloyd Neubauer visited the Gaza Strip in May and had a memorable experience walking in Bethlehem, a city in the Palestinian autonomous region in the West Bank, 10 km from Jerusalem. “I am one of the few tourists who came here after 7 months of fighting in the Gaza Strip,” Ian said.

Considered the birthplace of Jesus, King David, Bethlehem is an important pilgrimage destination for Christians, Jews and Muslims. Before Hamas attacked Israel on October 7, 2023, the city was considered a tourist hotspot or “jewel in the crown” in the $1 billion Palestinian tourism industry.

A salesman waits for customers in Bethlehem. Image: SCMP

“Whether you are interested in history, religion or culture, the city is certainly a fascinating place to visit,” local travel company Tourist Israel wrote on its website. However, when Ian contacted him to book a tour to Bethlehem, a company representative said “the tours have been canceled” because of the fighting.

Unable to book a tour, Ian went to the tourist information center in Jaffa, Tel Aviv, to look for opportunities. Here, he met an Israeli who specialized in leading tourists to Bethlehem before the war broke out. This person guided Ian to Jerusalem and from there took a bus to Bethlehem.

Departing from Damascus Gate, the largest of the eight gates leading into the Old City of Jerusalem, the bus carrying Ian and other passengers stopped upon arriving in Bethlehem. An Israeli border policeman got on the bus to check each passenger’s identification documents. In the car were a couple of Romanian tourists, Ian and his wife were foreigners, the rest were all Palestinians.

After checking, the bus continues to depart. Ian rates the road from Jerusalem to Bethlehem as a “wonder” with long, winding roads passing through tunnels, bridges and running along the Judea mountains. The scenery on both sides also impresses visitors: steep, jagged hills and barren villages.

After 40 minutes of travel, the car arrives in Bethlehem. Ian’s first impression was that “everything was in disrepair” from the roads, shops and footpaths. Trash and weeds grow everywhere. Old cars are abandoned on the road.

A corner of Bethlehem today. Image: SCMP

Ian got out of the car and was walking when a taxi driver came to talk to him. This person asked Ian for 20 shekels (5 USD) to take him to the ancient city of Bethlehem, a UNESCO World Heritage Site, located at the top of a steep hill. When the male tourist refused and left, he swore and shouted “I will make Hamas kidnap you”.

“My heart started pounding,” Ian was so scared that he “could feel his pulse in his hand.” Ian then thought of two options: either just make a threat or turn the threat into reality. If things went according to his second guess, then even getting back on the bus to run back to Jerusalem would no longer make sense. Therefore, Ian was determined to go straight and not let that threat make him compromise on using the driver’s services.

The path to the top of the hill gradually narrows, leading to high white stairs made of limestone and shining brightly in the sunlight. Ian kept walking until he found himself in the middle of a bustling market, where fruit sellers and shoemakers were busy soliciting customers. The smell of baking flat bread wafts in the air. The church bell rang from the bell tower.

Ian realized he was the only Western customer at the market, so he attracted all the attention of the locals. The vendors scowled and asked him not to take pictures of them, others were indifferent, only the friendly children asked him where he came from.

The male tourist turned into a cobblestone alley, where there were deserted handmade souvenir shops and the depressed faces of the owners. “We can’t survive,” one owner lamented to Ian. Another person said they have not had any more guests since October 7, 2023.

At the top of the hill is the Church of the Nativity, Bethlehem’s main tourist attraction built in the Roman style in 565. The building is maintained almost intact with flower-filled courtyards.

The website of Tourist Israel once wrote that the Christmas Cave is the most sought-after place in Bethlehem, with crowds always waiting in long lines. No tour guide can guarantee the exact time when they can lead visitors into the cave.

When Ian visited, there were only a small group of tourists from Arab countries and a couple from Africa. The number of international visitors to Israel has decreased by 80% since the war with Hamas. Most tourists visiting today are Christians.

Ian returned to the market to buy a sandwich for 5 shekels (more than 1 USD), one-fifth of the price in Israel, and chatted with two Palestinian policemen. He mentioned being threatened by a taxi driver. The two police officers said that this was just a “personal matter” and assured that Bethlehem was “safe”.

Before returning to Jerusalem, Ian wanted to visit the tomb of Rachel (Rakhen), the prophet and wife of Jacob, the third patriarch of the Israelites. The road to the tomb is wide and scorching hot because there are no trees. On both sides of the road are shops where men sit and smoke pipes in groups. When he arrived, Ian could not visit because he was separated by the West Bank Wall, a hundreds of kilometers long concrete barrier built by Tel Aviv.

Ian called a taxi to take him to the bus stop. The driver rushed through the narrow streets of Bethlehem in a mood of irritation and complaints about the war. While following the highway to Jerusalem, the car stopped at a military checkpoint. Everyone must present identification as well as a travel permit to Israel. Ian breathed a sigh of relief because the journey ended smoothly.

Ian said that if anyone sought his advice on traveling to Bethlehem, his answer would be “don’t come at this time” because the war situation is still tense.

By Editor

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