The Israeli-Palestinian violence that erupted 14 months ago hurt tourism during last year´s holiday season. Now, the plunge in world travel due to the Sept. 11 terror attacks in the United States is expected to make this Christmas even worse.
"People are afraid to fly,´´ said Michel Bana, working in his family´s souvenir shop a few steps away from the Basilica of the Annunciation, where Christians believe the Angel Gabriel told Mary she would give birth to Jesus.
Even those who do travel, he added, are increasingly likely to pick a different destination. "Maybe they hear about the situation in Israel and they think that everywhere is bad, even Nazareth,´´ Bana said.
Nazareth is Israel´s largest Arab town, with a population of 70,000. Israeli Arabs are Palestinians who did not flee fighting in the aftermath of Israel´s creation in 1948 and were given citizenship.
Many of them have relatives in the West Bank and Gaza Strip. Among the more than 770 people killed on the Palestinian side since September 2000 were 13 Israeli Arabs who died during violent demonstrations in solidarity with Palestinians in the territories. Two of the victims were from Nazareth. On the Israeli side, more than 200 people have been killed.
There have also been scuffles between Muslim and Christian Arabs in Nazareth, at odds over plans to build a new mosque a few steps away from the walls of the basilica.
At a prayer tent and in a nearby market, Christians and Muslims fell into an uncomfortable silence when asked about the dispute. "Nobody likes to talk about it,´´ said Suhir Mazzawi, proprietress of a souvenir shop called The Nazarene.
In a town where tourism is the main industry, the slump has had a domino effect. At least two small hotels in Nazareth have closed this year, while the two major hotels, a Marriott and a Howard Johnson´s, are running with a skeleton staff and about 10% occupancy, the Israel Hoteliers Association told AP.
"Nobody has the Christmas spirit,´´ said Bana. "Nobody has the money to celebrate.´´