BETHLEHEM (Ma'an) -- Star Street was once the bustling heart of Bethlehem's Old City, a vital link on the 1,500-year-old
pilgrimage route from Jerusalem to the Nativity Church.
Lined with white sandstone homes dating back to the 19th century, the street has long been a central part of Bethlehem identity and a reservoir of the holy city’s architectural and cultural heritage.
Since 2000, however, the street has fallen into disrepair, its gentle facades torn apart by the Israeli incursions of the Second Intifada and the erection of checkpoints throughout the Old City's narrow alleyways.
By the time the fighting ended and the troops withdrew, the social fabric of the place was severely damaged. Many residents had emigrated, while even those who remained kept their shops shuttered for lack of confidence in the prospects of an economic recovery.
A new summer festival, however, is committed to changing this by bringing life, energy, and business back to the neighborhood. Bet Lahem Live, which begins Thursday and lasts four days, attracted 6,000 visitors to the street in its first run last year, and organizers are expecting double that number this year.
"Bethlehem is a city of peace and it is open for everyone," festival project manager Elias Deis told Ma'an while giving a tour of the area.
"Unfortunately though, since the Israeli invasion and the recurring attacks, all the shops here closed and tourists stopped coming. Even the local people don't walk through the street here anymore."
The festival, however, will take place all along the street and nearby squares, and will integrate musical and theater performances as well as workshops and an outdoor market.
Organizers have even convinced 55 residents who have closed their shops to re-open for the four days, meaning that for the first time in more than a decade a majority of the street's commercial establishments will be open. Organizers are hoping that many of these shop owners will consider opening year-round once they see their success during the festival.
After Bet Lahem Live brought thousands of visitors to the street last year, "residents saw how people are attached to the street and want to invest in it," Deis said.
"Now, we want to support local community in building their future with resources they have," Deis explained, "and give them the tools to make the change."
Charlie Murad is one of those local shop owners encouraged by the festival.
When he saw that an outside falafel shop had set up a place on Star Street during the festival last year, he contacted organizers and said that he would re-open his own falafel shop on the street.
"We have been closed for a very long time like all of these shops, but because of the festival we got excited to re-open the place and get it ready for work," he told Ma'an as we passed his shop, his slacks covered in dust from the renovation work.
"My faith is getting stronger that people will open their shops," he continued, adding: "But the government and the municipality need to help us, too."
'We want tourists to know the truth'
Organizers hope that the festival will buoy tourism in Bethlehem more broadly, attracting visitors to stay longer and see a city with much more to offer than just the Nativity Church.
Palestinian Minister of Tourism Rula Maayeh agrees, stressing that the government is working to support private sector efforts like the festival to attract more tourists and business.
"The problem is that when tourists come, they are brought to the hotel or directly to souvenir shop, so they don't walk in the Old City," she told Ma'an at her office in central Bethlehem.
The issue, however, is larger than just about tour itineraries, and is rooted in Israeli control over the tourism sector.
While only 42 out of a total of 200 Palestinian tour guides are legally licensed to work in Israel and Jerusalem, all Israeli tour guides are able to work in the West Bank, meaning that the vast majority of Palestinian guides are under-employed and unable to even work as tour guides in the West Bank itself.
Although the ministry has been working to fix the situation, Maayeh said Israel has refused to budge. She also noted that Israeli economic domination in the tourism market also extends to the issue of narratives.
"This a big problem not only because they don't work here, but also because Israeli guides tell the story of Palestine through their own story, politically and religiously."
"We want tourists when they come to know more about Palestinians so that they will know the truth by themselves," she said, adding: "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."
'They close Jerusalem, but we open Bethlehem'
Festival organizers do not shy away from discussing the politics inherent in their work, and the event declares its three "pillars" as justice, faith, and culture.
"Bethlehem is a model in the Middle East for coexistence between Muslims and Christians," project manager Elias Deis told Ma'an, stressing that as Israel tightens its grip on Jerusalem and prevents Palestinians from accessing Christian and Muslim holy sites there, Bethlehem remains a "city of peace, open for all people."
The festival hopes to encourage discussion around themes of coexistence through open workshops on Muslim-Christian relations in Palestine and the region, offering an opportunity for locals to not only celebrate diversity, but also think critically about it and challenge extremism on both sides.
"We see that there are challenges, but we want to face these through the workshops," Deis explained.
The festival also embraces an expansive definition of justice that seeks not only religious, political, and social justice, but also economic justice.
"We are hoping to draw attention to the unfair share of resources for tourism and injustice in the tourism sector," Deis said.
A central complaint of residents and organizers is that the municipality negotiated an agreement in 1999 with Palestinian investment company PADICO to open a bus station near Manger Square. Since then tourists visiting Bethlehem on tours go straight from the station to the church and back, avoiding Star Street and the entire Old City. Israeli tour guides, many allege, also tell tourists that Bethlehem is dangerous and not to veer off.
"Eighty percent of internationals who come to Bethlehem come through Israel travel agencies," Deis told Ma'an.
"On the Israeli programs, they go to the church for a few hours, stop in a souvenir shop, and then go. They don't want them to meet people, to interact."
Festival organizers are hoping to pressure the municipality to renegotiate the bus agreement in the coming year so that tour buses would drop off groups at the top of Star Street, allowing them to travel the traditional pilgrimage route and see the shops, cafes, and restaurants that they hope will open. Even if organizers and the Palestinian Ministry of Tourism cannot directly challenge the Israeli occupation's control over the tourist market, they hope to be able to fight back by reshaping tourist itineraries in Palestine.
Despite the struggles, tourism minister Maayeh is determined to promote and spread the market. "We want our liberated Palestine, but we also don't stop working. We must continue working despite all of the problems of the occupation."
Deis agreed: "We may be behind the wall, but there is still life here."