In photos: Bethlehem festival draws thousands to Old City

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Originally published by Ma’an News Agency on June 19, 2014.

The Bet Lahem Live festival kicked off on Thursday night along Bethlehem’s historic Star Street, launching four days of music, theater, and open-air shopping and dining in the heart of the holy city’s old town.

Organizers expect to draw 12,000 Palestinian and foreign tourists to the festival this year, and for the first time in more than a decade, a majority of shops along Star Street — which have been closed shut since the Israeli invasions of the city during the Intifada — will re-open for the festival.

Elias Deis, a project manager for Bet Lahem Live, said that the festival hopes to encourage outsiders to explore Bethlehem and see the city’s many sites beside the Church of the Nativity, which draws two million tourists a year.

Bethlehem is a “city of peace, open for all people,” he told Ma’an in an interview before the festival’s opening, stressing that even as the Israeli forces limited the access of Muslims and Christians to holy sites in Jerusalem, Bethlehem was committed to remaining a multicultural city open for all faiths and all peoples.

The festival began with a parade beginning at the Bethlehem Peace Center in Manger Square beside the Church of the Nativity, where Jesus Christ is traditionally believed to have been born.

The parade proceeded along the traditional pilgrimage route on Star Street until it reached the Catholic Action Circle, from where Jerusalem can be seen in the distance on the other side of the Israeli separation wall.

Along the way, the parade — which consisted of clowns as well as massive puppet statues — passed by the many re-opened shops, where local residents were busy puffing away on shisha pipes and selling food, drinks, and Palestinian heritage items.

Festival organizers are hoping that many of the residents who have re-opened their storefronts on Star Street will consider opening full time, and residents that Ma’an spoke to were cautiously hopeful.

The majority of the shops shut after the outbreak of the Second Intifada in 2000 and especially after repeated Israeli incursions in the southern West Bank city, including a 2002 siege on the Church of the Nativity itself.

Although Israeli forces continue to maintain a heavy presence on the edges of Bethlehem — including the separation wall, which cuts through the city and effectively annexes the tomb of Biblical matriarch Rachel to Jerusalem — the occupation is felt mainly through the economic stranglehold it has on the city.

Organizers, however, hope that by encouraging tourists to spend more time in Bethlehem and drawing attention to the city’s many sites beyond the Church of the Nativity, they can show a richer and more complex image of modern Palestinian life.

Prior to the festival, Palestinian minister of tourism told Ma’an that she hopes the festival will also introduce more visitors to the Palestinian story, highlighting both the perseverance of the Palestinian people as well as their hope for the future.

“We want tourists when they come to know more about Palestinians so that they will know the truth by themselves,” she told Ma’an.

“We want them to see how Palestinians are willing to live in peace in the land of peace, but like any other people in the world, they want their freedom, and they want their children to live like all children in the world.”

This year’s festival comes at a time of increased tensions in the West Bank, with Israeli forces arresting more than 300 Palestinians and raiding more than 800 homes in besieged Hebron as they search for three missing teenagers.

Despite the violence, however, festival organizer Elias Deis is committed to showing that “We may be behind the wall, but there is still life here.”

The full program for Bet Lahem Live can be found on their website. The festival continues through Sunday.