Bethlehem's Reality in 2021: A Resilient City Under Israel's Colonial Occupation 

Media Briefs
December 22, 2021

Once a year, the Palestinian city of Bethlehem enters millions of homes worldwide with the spirit of Christmas. For many, the name of "Bethlehem" may refer to a biblical place without knowing that the city has been uninterruptedly inhabited for almost 4,000 years with people that have kept alive centuries-long traditions of people from various rites that compose the cultural mosaic of Palestine. 


Encircled From Four Sides:

  • Israel's illegal process of colonization and annexation has heavily affected Bethlehem by controlling 87% of the land and rendering it off-limits for Palestinian development. 
  • The northern Bethlehem entrance, including the historic Bethlehem – Jerusalem road, has been sealed by three illegal colonial settlements, most of them developed after the Oslo Interim Agreement: "Gilo" (Al Slayeb), built-in 1973 (around 30,000 settlers), "Har Homa" (Jabal Abu Ghneim), built-in 1996 (about 30,000 settlers) and "Giv'at Hamatos", right across Mar Elias Monastery, and the latest colonial-settlement approved in the area. 
  • Since 2004, Israel began the construction of its illegal Annexation Wall that has effectively cut off the city from its hinterland and the city of Jerusalem, separating people from their families, lands, jobs, holy sites, health and educational facilities, and effectively striking the traditions of the Christmas celebrations.
  • The Wall also expands to the western Bethlehem Area, severely affecting the Cremisan Valley and Al Makhrour, part of the World Heritage Site of Battir. Several Palestinian villages, such as Wallajah, Battir, Husan, Wadi Fukin and Nahhalin, are effectively entrapped in a network of Israeli colonial settlements built on the western lands of Bethlehem known as "Gush Etzion" settlements; including "Har Gilo," "Neve Daniel," "Efrat," and "Beitar Illit," among others. 
  • In the southern Bethlehem area, Israel is currently expanding the illegal settlement of "Efrat" on lands belonging to the village of Artas, close to its historic monastery. Such colonial projects aim to consolidate the linkage between western Bethlehem settlements and eastern ones while eventually separating the city from the south, including Hebron. 
  • On the eastern side of Bethlehem, another network of colonial settlements was developed, including "Tkoa" and "Nikodim", where Israel's Minister of Finance Avigdor Lieberman resides. 
  • In 2021, two illegal colonial settlement installations (outposts) were established on lands belonging to Bethlehem governorate: "Eden Farm" on Al Khader (a village built around an ancient monastery after Saint George) and "Pnei Kedem North Farm" in the area of Sa'ir village. 
  • In 2021, thousands of colonial settlement units were advanced around Bethlehem city, including "Har Homa E", which is very close to the Mar Elias Monastery, the first stop of the Patriarchs of Jerusalem on the traditional Christmas Eve's procession from Jaffa Gate in Jerusalem to the Nativity Church in Bethlehem.
  • Other colonial settlement units advanced in the Bethlehem area include "Giv'at Hamatos" (north of Bethlehem), "Bitar Illit" (west), "Efrat" (south), "Elazar" (south), and "Kfar Etzion" (south).
  • Construction works for the expansion of bypass road 60 are ongoing on Beit Jala and Al Khader lands. The Spanish company Ossa is involved in engineering the new tunnels that will benefit the illegal colonial settlements in the Bethlehem and Hebron governorates. Additionally, plans to expand bypass road 385 in Al Wallajeh village were introduced. 

Denied Potential: Tourism and the Economic Situation1

  • The COVID-19 pandemic has for the past two years minimal foreign tourism, rendering a dramatic effect on Bethlehem city and its surroundings. 
  • In 2021, the economic situation in Bethlehem went up around 10% compared to the previous year, including with regards to hotels and restaurants. This is not due to foreign tourism but mainly through domestic tourism. 
  • Unemployment in the Bethlehem Governorate remains at 33%. 

Cultural Heritage and the Israeli Occupation:

  • Like the neighbouring governorates of Hebron and Jerusalem, the Bethlehem Governorate has World Heritage Sites and several archaeological and touristic sites of Arab and international interest. 
  • The State of Palestine successfully registered two sites within the governorate as UNESCO World Heritage Sites, namely the Nativity Church ("Church of the Nativity and the Pilgrimage Route") and Battir ("Palestine: Land of Olives and Vines – Cultural Landscape of Southern Jerusalem, Battir"). Other important sites in and around the city of Bethlehem include the Milk Grotto, Shepherds Fields (Beit Sahour), Saint Nicholas Church (Beit Jala), Cremisan Monastery and Valley, Artas Monastery, Solomon Pools (Artas), the Herodian Mountain (Jabal al-Fureidis), and Mar Elias Monastery. and the Bilal Ibn Rabah Mosque / Rachel Tomb.
  • Currently, the Herodian Mountain is under the control of the Israeli Parks Authority, which runs several other sites in occupied Palestine for the benefit of Israel's colonial-settlement enterprise. Bilal Ibn Rabah Mosque/ Rachel Tomb has been encircled by Israel's Annexation Wall and Palestinians are forbidden access to it. Mar Elias Monastery has been left on the west side of the Annexation Wall and is impossible to access without Israeli military permits. 

Home Demolitions 

  • Between 1 January and 16 December 2021, the Israeli occupying forces conducted around 327 demolition operations in the Bethlehem Governorate, resulting in the demolition (by also forcing Palestinians to demolish their properties) and seizure of a total of 848 Palestinian structures, including homes and 214 structures funded by international donors. 
  • At least 1,097 Palestinians were forcibly displaced by Israeli occupying forces, including 598 children. The number of affected people in the Bethlehem Governorate has reached at least 13,076, including 6,642 children. 

While certain Israeli politicians talk about "shrinking the conflict", meaning the perpetuation of Israel's occupation in exchange for some economic incentives, the case of Bethlehem portrays how, in the absence of a political solution, there will be no prospects for Palestine, including sustainable economic development. Bethlehem, the birthplace of Jesus, has turned into an open-air prison that could only excel if primary conditions are present, including:

  • Freedom of movement: Reuniting the city with Jerusalem. 
  • Expanding infrastructure, mainly roads, water infrastructure and housing buildings into areas off-limits for Palestinian development, whether under "de jure" or "de facto" annexation. 
  • Development and control of archaeological, religious, and touristic sites, including Herodian Mountain, Battir, Bilal Bin Rabah Mosque, and Mar Elias Monastery. 
  • For Palestine to have its own international airport and control over its border crossings, enabling regional tourism, particularly from its neighbours. 
  • In other words: Ending the Israeli Occupation. 


Bethlehem and all of Palestine must be an independent touristic destination rather than a subcontractor of Israeli tourism under the design of the occupying Power. Failure to achieve this will not "shrink the conflict" but instead perpetuate its causes in one of the most critical files for economic development, promotion of cultural heritage, and cooperation.  

  • 1. Figures from the Bethlehem Chamber of Commerce, 21 December 2021.
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