The city of Bethlehem wants the world to know it’s more than a Biblical theme park.
At the entrance to Bethlehem, just past a 25-foot-high, Israeli-built concrete wall that defines the edge of this West Bank city, is a dazzling castle made of chiseled white Jerusalem stone.
Built in 1910 by a local merchant from the prominent Jacir family, the building’s exterior is defined by wonderfully intricate carvings that integrate traditional Bethlehemite designs, symbols from all major world religions, and avant garde patterns from the early 20th century.
When it was built, the Jacir Palace sat amid olive orchards in the fields north of Bethlehem. Just down the road is Rachel’s Tomb, an austere shrine to the Biblical matriarch that was revered by local Muslim, Christian, and Jewish women, who were united in their belief that the shrine could grant fertility. It is similar to other simple Palestinian mystical shrines, with white brick walls, a small dome, and vaulted ceilings.
No doubt the Jacir family was pleased to have the shrine beside their elegant palace, accentuating their wealth as well as the modernity and cosmopolitanism of the world that was emerging, slowly but surely, in Eastern Mediterranean towns like Bethlehem. The Jacir family ensured all religions were represented on the facade of their home: a cross stands beside a crescent moon and a Star of David, while swastikas and other Hindu and Buddhist symbols appear as well.
Today, however, the delicate features of the Jacir Palace are overwhelmed by the massive gray slabs of the nearby wall, which the Israeli military says is needed for security. The wall chops up what was once Bethlehem’s main commercial thoroughfare. And although the neighborhood is still called “The Tomb,” its namesake sits behind that wall, rendered off-limits by an Israeli checkpoint closed to all but Orthodox Jews.
A refugee camp, meanwhile, has grown up beside the palace over the last seven decades, and clashes between local youths and the soldiers who watch over the area in massive military towers are a near daily occurrence.
The Tomb would seem an awkward place for tourists these days. But given Bethlehem’s dependence on its Biblical fame for income, perhaps it’s not such a surprise that Jacir Palace has been remade into a five-star hotel.
Tear gas fired by the Israeli military drifts into the swimming pool area on occasion, and visitors are warned not to leave through the main entrance when clashes are occurring. But for the most part, the hotel functions normally despite these disruptions, not unusual in a land that has seen little besides occupation in the last half century. The hotel desperately tries to maintain a veneer of normality for guests, in the process nearly completely effacing not only the world around it but also the history of the building itself.
The seemingly unlikely combination of colonial rule and resistance on one side and happy-go-lucky tourism on the other is entirely mundane within the context of Bethlehem as a whole. Although for many in the West the town’s name conjures up images derived from Orientalizing European portraits of pastoral landscapes, this urban area of around 100,000 is a bustling cultural and commercial hub.
At its heart is the Church of the Nativity, built over the cave where Jesus is believed to have been born, sitting directly across from the Mosque of Omar, built atop the site where the second Caliph of Islam issued a proclamation of religious freedom and tolerance that has defined relations in this mostly-Christian city in a mostly-Muslim country ever since.
The hotel’s surroundings are not the only thing that has changed since Suleiman Jacir decided to build his dream home. Less than twenty years after moving in, the family lost their fortune in the global stock market crash and were forced to move into the servant’s quarters they had built beside the home.
British colonial authorities—who seized control of Palestine after World War I—subsequently turned the building into a prison. When the British fled in 1948, Israeli forces seized more than 75 percent of Palestine but were forced back by Jordanian forces only a few miles west of the house. The home was then turned into a school, but after Israel invaded again in 1967, the Jacir Palace would again become synonymous with military rule.
The building’s strategic location—overlooking the nearby Aida refugee camp—made it a useful place from which to keep watch over Palestinian nationalist activities. Meanwhile, the underground rooms, which were built to house the Jacir family’s farm animals, were perfectly suited for detention and torture.
A few years after limited Palestinian sovereignty was granted by Israel in the early 1990s after the First Intifada, local entrepreneurs transformed the building into its current incarnation as a luxury hotel.
Originally opened as an Intercontinental in 2000, within months it was forced to close because of fighting. Israeli forces took over the building for a brief period again in the Second Intifada and used it as a base to invade Bethlehem, in the process reviving its past life as a prison.
Since re-opening in 2005, the hotel has tried its hardest to turn its back on its history, and today the hotel—which was eventually stripped of its Intercontinental status—offers little explanation of its past.
The animal-manger-cum-torture-chamber has become a bar popular with those who can afford it. When the tear gas is not too strong, the pool area fills up with Palestinians visiting from Israel, who come to swap their status as second-class citizens in the Jewish State for that of moneyed visitor among their poorer and more restricted West Bank counterparts.
But like everything in Palestine, the tourism industry is heavily affected by Israeli restrictions. Minister of Tourism Rula Maayeh says that Israel refuses to license more than a few dozen Palestinian tour guides or allow Palestinian buses to enter Israel, while Israeli tour guides and buses freely enter Palestinian-controlled areas in the West Bank. Since few tourists come to the Holy Land expecting to restrict their stay to the few towns Israel allows the Palestinian Authority to govern, the vast majority opt for Israeli-organized tours. For political reasons, these tours drop tourists off for an hour or two in Bethlehem and then bring them right back to areas under Israeli control.
A large portion of these visitors are evangelical Christians for whom Bethlehem is a museum city of Christian monuments and biblical landscapes. The people actually living there are beside the point. Some Israeli tour guides warn tourists not to wander the Old City, explaining that there are thieves in its marketplaces (crime is nearly null in Bethlehem), and others go so far as to say that Bethlehem is an Israeli city.
But not everyone is content to play a part in this bizarre Nativity play. Palestinians have long argued that their very existence in their homeland is a form of resistance, and increasingly, locals are realizing that even with Israeli restrictions, the fact that they receive around 1.5 million tourists a year represents a great opportunity. While the Jacir Palace’s managers have obscured that building’s history, in Bethlehem’s Old City a new wave of small hotels are betting that by exploring the ghosts of the city’s history as well as the troubles of its present they might not only succeed economically but also provide a different kind of insight.
A few feet down from the Nativity Church, Nabil Rishmawi has opened the town’s first boutique hotel in the large stone home his grandmother Aziza was born in. Named Dar Sitti Aziza (“My Grandmother Aziza”), Rishmawi is dedicated to promoting Bethlehem’s cultural legacy to tourists by ensuring the use of local goods. The menu is sourced in the farming villages of the region and boasts vegetables, sauces, and jams that have long since fallen out of favor in most restaurants, dropped for being too “village-y.”
The home has been in the family for around a century, but carved inscriptions indicate the central part of the building has existed at least since the 1600s. Rishmawi’s dedication to promoting Bethlehem’s history and culture is, for him, a continuation of his grandmother’s legacy. Aziza provided food and lodging to Palestinian guerrillas in the home during the 1936-39 uprising against the British colonial regime.
His mother, Emily, who was born in the home, also helps administer the hotel. She is locally famous for her role in the Palestinian non-violent resistance against the Israeli occupation in the late 1980s. She helped lead a local tax rebellion under the banner “No taxes without representation,” enjoining her neighbors to refuse to pay taxes to the Israeli military until Palestinians were provided with some sort of democratic rights. At the time, when even the Palestinian flag and the word “Palestine” were banned by Israeli authorities, demanding any kind of freedom was a major risk.
But she proudly mentions to visitors that for her it was a human duty; with soldiers beating, arresting, and killing Palestinians at will, she refused to resign herself to subhuman status. Decades later, she notes bitterly that little has changed, with Israeli military rule still in effect and the corrupt Palestinian Authority governing.
It is exactly these stories and histories that other parts of the Bethlehem tourism industry try so hard to obscure, trying instead to present a smiling face to tourists who think they’ve entered a living Bible theme park.
Just up the road from the hotel is Manger Square, the Old City’s heart and the local tourism industry’s Mecca. Here, the “smiling face” is in full effect; signs tell locals in Arabic that loitering, skating, or smoking waterpipes in the area is forbidden, unless they are willing pay tourist prices at nearby cafes.
Just before Christmas two years ago, the height of tourist season, activists from the Aida refugee camp a mile or two down the road adorned one of the trees in the Square with the tear-gas canisters, stun grenades, and rubber bullets Israeli soldiers shot at the camp the day before. Placards were also hung on the tree explaining that they were Christmas presents from the United States, which subsidizes Israel’s occupation to the tune of $3 billion a year, the majority of it in military aid. The mock Christmas tree was a stab at the Bethlehem municipality, which accepted tens of millions of dollars in funds from USAID for Christmas celebrations and thus had been obliged to erect huge banners announcing “A gift from the American people” around the Square.
Unimpressed, local police tore down the mock Christmas tree display the next day and detained one of the youths who put it up. “Grenades will scare tourists,” the police explained to me at the time. Tourism authorities often invite visitors to learn about the political realities in their speeches and the Square even features a small information panel about the history of the Israeli occupation, but for the most part, these realities are avoided in favor of the fairy tale.
For Palestinians, this is one of the most difficult parts of coming to terms with their own history: how to provide a narrative that neither obscures reality in order to provide a Biblical theme-park experience nor allows itself to be overwhelmed by the violent legacy of the military occupations of the last 100 years. But despite the constraints and the forced silences, in Bethlehem’s nascent independent tourism industry, a new narrative is slowly being woven.