History, Economy, and Tourism
For centuries the land of Palestine has welcomed travelers from around the world. Linking the three continents of Europe, Asia and Africa, people are drawn to this land of prophets and miracles, historic ruins and ancient towns. As the only part of the world that is considered holy to Christians, Muslims and Jews alike, Palestine is a fascinating mix of people and cultures, and home to some of the most important history of the world.
Set in undoubtedly one of the most beautiful parts of Palestine, the historic city of Beit Sahour lies to the east of Bethlehem and south-east of Jerusalem. The origins of the name Beit Sahour (the house of vigilance) reputedly stems from the Canaanite words "Beit" meaning place, and "Sahour" meaning night watch, which reflected the importance of the area for shepherds. The land provided their flocks with good grazing during the day and safety in the numerous caves at night.
The area is full of historical and biblical sites of significance. Ruins from Roman, Byzantine, Islamic and Crusader times can be found throughout the area. In addition, there are many sites of special importance to followers of the three monotheistic religions, to whom this land is sacred.
Beit Sahour is a model of cooperation and brotherhood between Christians and Muslims. Throughout the troubled and turbulent history of our land, the people of Beit Sahour have always stood firm as a united community. Today, Beit Sahour is home to some 14,500 residents, 80% Christian and 20% Muslim.
For the last four centuries, Palestine has been subject to various hostile occupations, culminating with the illegal occupation of our land by Israel following the 1967 war. In the aftermath of the turbulent years since 1948, when the State of Israel was declared, much of the city of Beit Sahour needed to be rebuilt. Today, despite the progress of the so-called peace process, we still suffer from the punishing effects of Israeli control over us. Our community has been at the forefront of the non-violent movement of struggle against the occupation and we have endured harsh conditions because of our resistance.
During the first Palestinian uprising (Intifada), actions such as "No Taxation Without Representation" proved very successful, capturing world attention and gaining international support. In addition, following the call from Israeli Prime Minister Izahack Rabin to "break the bones of Palestinians," Beit Sahour welcomed Jewish Israelis into their homes in an act of friendship called "Break Bread, Not Bones." These actions were unprecedented and, despite the hardship we endured as a result of our resistance, show the strength of will and commitment of Beit Sahourians to seek a just and lasting peace for our people.
In the current climate of today’s uncertainty and fear, we continue to stand resolute in the face of aggression and occupation, and we are determined to see the justice of our cause realized and a last and viable peace prevail in our land.
Today, Beit Sahour has approximately 14,500 residents and is a thriving town with industries such as chemicals, stone work and textiles. The inhabitants have developed high quality artisan craftsmanship, mainly in mother-of-pearl, olive wood, and embroidery. Tourism and its related enterprises, including travel agencies, touring, hotels, restaurants, and arts and crafts play a crucial role in the economy, and the town has a variety of restaurants, cafes and hotels to offer its citizens and tourists alike.
Following the Oslo agreements in the early 90's, there was great hope that tourism would become a major part of the fledgling economy of Palestine, and much was invested in development projects geared to tourism. Just prior to September 2000, the economy of Beit Sahour was healthy and growing. Particularly, in light of the year 2000 celebrations Beit Sahour saw an increase in tourism. Many businesses in the region felt confident that there was a strong and sustainable future for tourism and related enterprise. However, since the revival of violence in September 2000, both the West Bank and Gaza Strip have been kept under a harsh siege by Israel.
One aspect of the siege is the implementation of strictly enforced closures that prohibit much movement within Palestinian controlled areas, let alone to and from Israel. Tourism in Palestine is facing a major crisis, not just from the current political turmoil but also from long-term Israeli control over the Palestinians and their land. The result has left jobless many of those who depended on tourism for their living, such as guides, restaurateurs, hoteliers, arts and craftspeople, taxi drivers and travel agents. Many local businesses are family run; therefore entire families are without work.
Other sources of employment have also suffered. Many Palestinians worked in Israel, mainly in construction, but the arbitrary closure of checkpoints denies those workers access to their jobs. In some areas, farmers cannot harvest their crops due to recurrent violent attacks from settlers, often witnessed by the Israeli occupation forces. Trade is virtually impossible, since Israel controls the border crossings, which has cut off our export route. Palestinians have always struggled against a system designed to favor Israeli tour operators, with the majority of income generated by tourism in the area going to them, rather than local operators.
The Israeli Ministry of Tourism does not differentiate between Israel and the West Bank, and even their website shows no borders and encourages visitors to rely on Israeli operators for services. We value healthy competition, but have no chance to compete due to Israeli control. A Palestinian agent is required to obtain special permits for travel between the West Bank and Israel. Palestinian operators cannot work in Israel, but Israeli operators can work in the West Bank. Israel controls much of the Palestinian territories, including annexed East Jerusalem, thus many important archaeological and religious sites are under Israel's jurisdiction while the continued policy of illegal settlement building erodes the Palestinians' ability to compete in an already restricted market. The sector is therefore deprived of investment and the chance to build itself into a thriving industry.
Tourists visiting the area formerly provided a vital source of income for the local handicraft industry. Palestinian artisans have been producing fine works for many centuries and are recognized throughout the world as expert craftsmen. The tradition of handcrafting items has been passed down from generations, and the same methods are being used today as they have been for centuries. The vast majority of the items produced are bought by pilgrims and tourists. The work of local craftsmen can be found in homes all over the world.
Sadly, the current situation in Palestine has severely damaged the trade in handicrafts. In Beit Sahour there are four large souvenir shops stocking the work of local craftsmen, along with over 130 family base workshops. Currently, all of them have virtually no trade. In an effort to overcome this problem, local craftsmen are looking overseas to find a viable market. Handicraft exhibitions, where local artists have shown their work, have been held throughout Europe, America and Canada. These exhibitions have helped to alleviate somewhat the financial difficulties they are facing, but the area desperately needs to see the tourists return.
Recent exhibitions in Europe have provided a forum for local artisans to present their work, and the Mayor has attended several events, taking the opportunity to talk about the situation here in Palestine and particularly in Beit Sahour. It is vital for our community to keep the traditions of our people alive and the handicrafts industry is one of the most important links that we have to our history. We hope to arrange many more of these exhibitions and welcome any interested parties to contact Beit Sahour Municipality.
Since September 2000 and the beginning of the second Palestinian Intifada (uprising), Israel’s ongoing policy of closures, infrastructure destruction, assassinations, house demolitions, land confiscation and mass detentions have had devastating effects on all aspects of our lives. Economy and agriculture has been hit badly and unemployment, poverty, lack of proper health care, migration and loss of hope are the main characteristics of the Palestinian life in the third millennium. Beit Sahour is no exception.
The near worldwide condemnation of the democratic election results in which Hamas (the Islamic Resistance Movement) won the majority in the Palestinian Legislative Council sends a clear message that the West in particular does not want democracy in the Middle East unless it serves their interests. The subsequent freeze on international aid and the illegal Israeli refusal to release millions of dollars in customs and tax revenues they collect on behalf of the Palestinian Authority (agreed upon by the trade regulation treaty of Paris) is the West’s response to democracy in the Palestine. Due to its heavy dependence on Israel and foreign aid, the Palestinian economy is highly sensitive to external induction. A March 2006 World Bank report warned that the suspension of these two financial sources will likely have a negative impact on Palestinian personal income, unemployment and poverty levels over the next three years (2006-08). In 2005, the international community, acting through the Ad Hoc Liaison Committee (AHLC), established that in order to achieve desirable Palestinian GDP growth rates, Israel would need to continue the transfer of revenues, roll back its restrictive measures on movement and access, and increase Palestinian labor access to Israel—or at least maintain the 2005 level of access. The committee also noted the importance of sustained high rates of donor and private investment and reform of Palestinian governance. John Ging, Director of UNRWA operations in Gaza warned, “From a humanitarian perspective, the outlook in Gaza is bleak. We are once again facing imminent food shortages; insecurity is making delivery of humanitarian services difficult. All of this is likely to add up to more refugees falling under the poverty line and becoming dependent on humanitarian assistance.” Yet Israel continues to justify its behavior under the fabricated pre-text of fighting terrorism, which totally ignores the harsh realities imposed on the Palestinians by the occupation. These actions and others, the harsh siege, the banning of Palestinians from working in Israel and controlling the import export activities of the Palestinian economy adds immensely to Palestinians’ suffering and forces the Palestinians, who are in a desperate situation, to fight back with infrequent acts of what the West labels as terrorism. Collective punishment does not and will not reduce the violence.
As of February 2006 and due to measures imposed by Israel and the international community, the economical situation deteriorated badly.160,000 employees of the Palestinian Authority did not received their salaries, unemployment rate reaches 65%-70% and small businesses closed down. Local authorities suffered too as their tax revenues (either collected from the residence or referred from the Ministry of Finance) were completely frozen due to inability of the residents to pay their bills nor the Finance Ministry transference of municipality dues. Beit Sahour is no exception. The Municipality is suffering from a major revenue shortfall and we are struggling to provide all the services and facilities that we are committed to offer our residents. Developmental projects also still frozen as donor countries freeze their assistance.
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