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Date posted: December 25, 2003
By Molly Moore

Four years ago, Christmas shoppers waited in line to enter the Giacaman family's shop and buy their coveted olive-wood Nativity carvings, family members recall.

Last year, the shop had so few visitors that the Giacamans locked up early on Christmas day and ate their first Christmas dinner at home in decades. For a family that has been carving and selling Bethlehem's famous olive-wood figurines for four generations, it was no cause for celebration.

Today, theirs is one of the few wood carvers' shops still open in a city economically and psychologically devastated by more than three years of conflict between Palestinians and Israelis. With most of their neighbors' stores shuttered and only a handful of browsers during what was once the busiest week of the year, it has been difficult to summon Christmas cheer in the place revered by Christians as the birthplace of Jesus.

"This is the first year we've had a tree since the intifada began," said Joseph Giacaman, a 43-year-old father of three, referring to the three-year-old Palestinian uprising. "We've had to force ourselves to have the Christmas feeling."

Tourism officials in this West Bank city estimate that 15,000 visitors made it here this year, a tiny fraction of the 1 million tourists who visited Israel. This holiday season has drawn a trickle of foreigners, mostly from Mediterranean countries and Asia, but Bethlehem's largely Palestinian population has been in no mood to greet them cheerily.

The majority of Bethlehem's residents have been trapped in the city by Israeli checkpoints and roadblocks since the uprising began. Forty percent of the workforce is unemployed, according to city officials. Four hundred shops -- most of the city's small businesses -- have had so little income that they have not paid city taxes in three years, municipal authorities said. Bethlehem's well-known defiance of and resistance against Israel has been replaced by despair, many residents said.

In an effort to demonstrate the city's isolation, a community group called the Civil Committee in Arab Sawahreh tried on Tuesday morning to send a man and a donkey-borne woman -- symbolizing Mary and Joseph on their Christmas journey to Bethlehem -- through one of the Israeli military checkpoints.

"When we arrived at the checkpoint, the Israeli soldiers prevented us from passing," said Osama Zahaikeh, one of the organizers. "We knew they would not let us through. The whole thing was a symbolic act to show we lack freedom of movement."

Israeli officials say the barrier is necessary to stop suicide bombers and other attackers, but earlier this year they determined that so little violence could be traced to Bethlehem that Palestinian security forces were allowed to return to the streets. On Tuesday, the military issued a statement saying some restrictions would be lifted to allow pilgrims, tourists, journalists and the few Palestinians with permits to travel outside their towns of residence to visit Bethlehem.

The Giacamans, a Roman Catholic family whose ancestors came here from Italy generations ago, are like many families in their efforts to survive in a place they say has become a prison under Israeli occupation.

Issa Giacaman, 62, who has invested a lifetime in the art of carving religious figures from the exquisitely grained wood of local olive trees, looked out the front door of his store onto Manger Square, which was devoid of tourists one morning this week.

"I feel like I'm totally crippled," said Giacaman, the family patriarch with a fringe of silvery-white hair and a first name that means "Jesus" in Arabic. "Some people just open their doors to allow fresh air into their shops. It's depressing. It's sad. Sometimes I just sleep the whole day."

Once among Bethlehem's most prosperous small business owners, the Giacamans employed 38 carvers and other workers when Pope John Paul II visited Bethlehem in 2000. Demand was so high that some customers were put on six-month waiting lists to receive their Nativity scenes -- some so intricately detailed that drills the size of dental tools are used to fashion the folds of the three wise men's cloaks.

Now the staff has dwindled to 10 people, who work at most three days a week and whose handiwork usually ends up collecting dust on the shop's shelves. Sales are about 1 percent of the volume they were in 2000, one of Bethlehem's best years for tourism, said Jack Giacaman, 32. He estimated that about five or six customers a week, most of them foreign diplomats posted in Israel, visit the shop.

In the spring of 2002, when Israeli forces surrounded the Church of the Nativity and laid siege to Palestinian gunmen and others inside, soldiers lived in the family's workshop for 38 days. They used boxes of the carved Nativity figures for firewood, said Angela Giacaman, 53, Jack's aunt, who produced photographs showing the damage.

Since Israel began construction of a barrier around Bethlehem -- a complex of multiple fences and patrol roads that will eventually encircle the town -- the family has lost nearly 80 acres of olive groves to the project, Jack Giacaman said. Some lay in the path of the barrier; most of the trees are on the other side and thus inaccessible to Bethlehem residents.

"We used to sell our olive oil," Giacaman said. "This year, for the first year, we had to buy olive oil."

Construction of the barrier, military operations, the erection of Jewish settlements and other Israeli activity around the West Bank has uprooted thousands of ancient olive trees, but wood carvers have salvaged some, allowing them to fashion figurines much larger than they would normally carve from the smallish branches of pruned trees. Giacaman family members say, however, that does not compensate for the estimated 250,000 Palestinian-owned olive trees that have been destroyed over the past three years.

Jack Giacaman met the woman who would become his wife last December when her family hid him from Israeli military patrols as he tried to make his way from Bethlehem to a nearby village during a curfew. But to travel to Jerusalem and Tel Aviv to shop for the wedding gown, order invitations and make other preparations for the February wedding, the bride and groom were forced to sneak out of the city on foot, Giacaman said.

"We had to do things illegally -- it was very dangerous," said Giacaman, whose wife, Tamara, is now pregnant. "If they catch you, they put you in prison."

The couple spent the first day of their honeymoon at an Israeli checkpoint in the West Bank. Bound for Jordan, where they had hoped to catch a plane to Dubai, they were turned back instead.

"We wanted to get out of this prison for a few days after we got married," he said. "Instead, we just came home and stayed in our house."

Source: The Washington Post

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