BETHLEHEM, Occupied West Bank — The Church of the Nativity was nearly deserted today as tourists, scared off by violence in the occupied territories, stayed away from this hilltop city where Jesus Christ was born.
The violence in the occupied West Bank and Gaza Strip is being felt throughout the Holy Land as officials call off Christmas celebrations and travelers cancel hotel reservations.
Since Dec. 8, at least 21 Arabs have been killed by Israeli troops in violent clashes in the occupied territories. Palestinian sources put the number at 25. Israel's tourism minister, Avraham Sharir, insists there is no danger to visitors.
"It's safer to be in Israel today than in New York, San Francisco or any other city in the United States," he said today while touring the Allenby Bridge linking the West Bank to Jordan.
U.S. Warning Blamed
Bethlehem Mayor Elias Freij said the number of visitors to the city this Christmas is far lower than the 10,000 who visited last year. He said some Bethlehem innkeepers have received room cancellations, and he put much of the blame on the U.S. State Department for advising Americans to exercise caution when visiting the occupied lands.
"It was not fair. No single tourist has ever been hurt in Bethlehem, but it's too late to do anything about it (the warning)," he said.
Two tour buses were parked at Manger Square, and only a smattering of tourists wandered around the adjacent Church of the Nativity, built over the cave where tradition says Jesus was born.
For the second straight day, soldiers carrying clubs and submachine guns patrolled the central square and the city's main streets. Troops were deployed on rooftops overlooking the square.
David Lawes, an 18-year-old student from Sidney, British Columbia, said he and a friend spent the night on the outskirts of Bethlehem.
"We slept with knives in an open field. In the morning, soldiers were all over the place. We expected soldiers to be around, but not so many," he said.