11/30/2004, 00.00
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Between old fears and new hopes, celebrating Advent in Bethlehem

Bethlehem (AsiaNews/Agencies) – Never like this year has the time of Advent been so charged with hope and expectations in the birthplace of Jesus. People are tired of war and look with hope to the emergence of a new Palestinian leadership that might bring peace to the Holy Land.

Even though the memory of the late Arafat, Palestine's charismatic leader, is still alive in the hearts of Palestinians, people reproach him for "Palestinians' international isolation" and his "incapacity to bring peace to the territories". Instead, "I hope Abu Mazen can reopen doors to the world for us, help us breathe again," said Bethlehem merchant Nasser Allawi.

The wall Israel is building in the West Bank to stop terrorist attacks cuts into part of Bethlehem whilst Jewish settlements are growing on the hills around, compounding the shrine town's sense of isolation and neglect.
Among the faithful gathered in the Basilica of the Nativity hope for a new era of peace" has also not disappeared altogether. According to some residents, the "atmosphere is more relaxed after almost a year free of serious violence". It has been quiet for some time, and "we have already been seeing a modest recovery in visitors".

Some were heartened by a meeting last week, the first in over four years, between the Palestinian and Israeli tourism ministers, who agreed to make it easier for pilgrims to visit Bethlehem. The two also appealed to Christians to visit the Holy Land.

Others are counting on Abu Mazen, a Muslim, to come to the Church of the Nativity's to celebrate Christmas Eve mass. "If Abu Mazen comes, it will help show the world that Bethlehem is safe again for tourism," said Yusuf Allawi, who co-manages the family souvenir store with his brother Nasser.

Other residents are more cautious about the future. "Things here have a way of being 'decided', then suddenly there's an explosion and we're back to square one," said Shukri Dallal, a food retailer. "All we can do is pray that our new leaders lead us towards peace, so we can work and come and go like normal people".

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