Archbishop Pierbattista Pizzaballa (C), apostolic administrator of the Latin Patriarch of Jerusalem, takes part in the Christmas Eve celebrations on December 24, 2016 outside the Church of the Nativity, revered as the site of Jesus Christ's birth, in the biblical West Bank town of Bethlehem. (AFP/Xinhua)
by Keren Setton
JERUSALEM, Dec. 24 (Xinhua) -- On a bright but chilly morning in Jerusalem, a shopkeeper in the Old City arranges the Christmas decorations in her empty shop. She stood at the entrance, waiting for customers. She refused to speak or identify herself.
With Christmas decorations hung by the Jerusalem municipality decorating the streets, tens of Christians came to receive free Christmas trees the municipality was distributing. This has become an annual event in the city.
Jerusalem, the place where Christians believe Jesus is buried, is trying to be festive days before the holiday. The Christians are a minority in Israel, about two percent of its population.
The role of Jerusalem in Christianity's faith and history is paramount -- making it a potential tourist attraction for believers from around the world.
But tensions and violence throughout the years have hampered that potential.
David Koren, the Jerusalem mayor's senior adviser for East Jerusalem and Arab Affairs, says the Jerusalem municipality is making great efforts to make it a merry Christmas.
"We are doing a lot of actions in order to make the Christmas as happiest and as best as we can. We are cleaning the roads, we are putting the lights in the Christian areas, we are giving Christmas trees to the Christian citizens of Jerusalem and we are doing whatever we can in order that this Christmas will be the happiest ever," he said.
Renewed violence began in September last year. There have been clashes and attacks all over Israel and the West Bank, but the focal point has been Jerusalem. Two U.S. citizens and 36 Israelis have been killed in attacks by Palestinian assailants. Over 220 Palestinians have been killed by Israeli security forces -- some were attackers and others died during clashes.
Mutual blame is handed out for the violence, but it has decreased in recent weeks. So has the media coverage of it -- making Christmas celebrations easier.
"Jerusalem nowadays is very secure," said Koren. "We have declined dramatically the amount of vandalism attacks in the city."
In what has become an annual tradition in Jerusalem, the municipality handed out free Christmas trees to its Christian residents. A Santa riding on a camel greeted those who came to get trees at the entrance to the Old City's Christian quarter.
Verena Sturm, a 23-year old German citizen studying environmental engineering in Jerusalem, came to get her tree.
"It will be really interesting to celebrate Christmas here because there are a lot of different churches here," she says with a big smile on her face, "I feel completely safe here," she added.
She came hours after a driver rammed into a crowded Berlin Christmas market killing over ten people and injuring dozens.
At the Notre Dame of Jerusalem Center, the quiet lobby hosts a recreation of Jesus' birth scene.
Tourists sit in the warm lobby before venturing out to tour the city's holy sites.
"Tourism has been picking up since last year," says Eliane Abdinnour from the marketing and development department of the center. "We keep always hoping for peace," she said with optimism.
According to Israel's Central Bureau of Statistics, there was a decline in incoming tourism in 2015, perhaps a result of the upsurge in violence.
The statistics for 2016 have yet to come out, but there is hope for better numbers.
Israel's tourism ministry is expecting 120,000 Christian pilgrims to arrive throughout December and the coming January.
"It's safe, and there have been no worries. Everything is under control," said Victor Portugal, a resident of Jerusalem from the Philippines. He came with his wife to get a Christmas tree.
In an attempt to streamline things for tourists, the Israeli Tourism ministry offers free shuttle transportation for pilgrims from Bethlehem to Jerusalem.
Bethlehem is located in the West Bank and is under Palestinian control. Tourists crossing between the two cities will cross Israel's controversial barrier wall that was built in 2002 in attempt to thwart Palestinian attacks against Israelis.
This contrast and ever-present reminder of the political situation is perhaps the weakest link of the tourism industry. Even if there is a lull in the violence, the conflict can simply not be avoided.
Security alone cannot be blamed for Israel's inability to fulfill its potential as a tourist hotspot.
Public transportation needs great improvement. The high cost of hotel rooms and dining in the country makes it an expensive destination.
In Nazareth, the city that is considered Jesus' hometown, an annual Christmas market is underway.
Locals and tourists come to get into the holiday mood.
"Spending New Years and Christmas in this land is just an incredible experience, just to be in the land where Jesus walked, where he lived -- this is very special to me," said Jennifer at the market.
It is this sentiment that Israeli tourism officials hope to capitalize on.
But hope is not enough and Israel must do more in order to improve its touristic appeal, with the country's fragile international image, its main weak spot.