barrier is needed to prevent attacks, but the Palestinians view it as a land grab because its route places almost 10% of the West Bank on the Israeli side. Bethlehem itself is almost completely surrounded by the barrier and a string of Jewish settlements.
The town’s predicament is on vivid display in and around the Walled-Off Hotel, which was designed by Banksy and opened in 2017. The hotel looks out on the separation wall, which itself is covered with artwork, graffiti and museum panels explaining life under occupation. Inside, a number of Banksy pieces are depicted in a haunting lobby, which this time of year is dimly lit with Christmas lights.
The hotel offers weekly performances by local musicians and daily tours of a nearby Palestinian refugee camp. Tours of Banksy’s public artwork elsewhere in the town can be organized on request.
A different form of alternative tourism, conceived by Palestinians themselves, can be found in the city center, just a few hundred meters (yards) from the church. There the municipality, with Italian aid, has restored an 18th-century guesthouse and rented it out to Fadi Kattan, a French Palestinian chef.
The Hosh Al-Syrian Guesthouse includes 12 tastefully furnished rooms ranging from $80-150 a night. At its Fawda Restaurant — Arabic for chaos — Kattan uses local ingredients to cook up traditional Palestinian cuisine with a modern twist.
“My vision was to say religious tourism will promote itself by itself, it doesn’t need the private sector to promote it,” he said. “Let’s promote everything else. Let’s promote our food, let’s promote our culture, let’s promote our history.”
Kattan is especially keen to promote Palestinian cuisine, which he says has been appropriated by Israeli chefs and food writers. As with nearly everything else having to do with the Middle East conflict, there are two sides: Israeli cuisine owes much to Jewish immigrants from ancient communities across the Middle East and North Africa.
The guesthouse partners with a local group known as Farayek to offer food tours in which visitors wander through the local market, meeting farmers, butchers and bakers before having lunch at the guesthouse. Another program includes cooking classes taught by a Palestinian grandmother.
“What I was hoping to achieve is to have people stay three nights in Bethlehem, to have people go to the fruit and vegetable market, to have people meet the people of Bethlehem, not just the very short tour into the city,” he said.
When the guesthouse opened in 2014, the average stay was one night, but now it has risen to three and a half, with steady occupancy throughout the low season, Kattan said.
A handful of other restored guesthouses have also opened in recent years, including Dar al-Majus, Arabic for House of the Maji, named for the three kings said to have visited the manger after Christ was born.
The guesthouse is part of a wider initiative by the Franciscan Custody of the Holy Land and a local association to support the Christian community. Bethlehem’s Christian community, like others across the Middle East, has dramatically dwindled in recent decades as Christians have fled war and conflict or sought better economic opportunities abroad.