This article was originally published in The Economist on December 24, 2015.
The residents of Jesus’s birthplace, snug in their beds on Christmas Eve, will hope that the only unexpected visitor is wearing a red suit and coming down the chimney. At least 55 people have been burgled in the city of peace over the past two months. Some of the thefts were quite serious, with more than $64,000 lifted from a house in the suburb of Beit Jala on December 11th. There were just 230 thefts in all of 2013, the most recent year for which official data are available. So the past few weeks have seen a 43% increase in property crime.
Bethlehem, and the West Bank in general, remain remarkably safe by Western standards. In 2013 the rate of theft was less than 2 per 1,000 residents. London’s Metropolitan Police would be thrilled with those numbers: the rate in England and Wales was four times higher. But the crime wave in the little town of Bethlehem is a sign of how badly the Palestinian economy is faltering. The World Bank reported in September that GDP per capita across the occupied territories had shrunk for a third consecutive year.
The downturn has hit particularly hard in Bethlehem, which depends heavily on hundreds of thousands of tourists and pilgrims who visit annually. Officials had hoped for a bumper year in 2014. The devastating summer war between Israel and Palestinian militants in Gaza ruined their plans. And this holiday season has brought no relief, with a wave of Palestinian stabbings and vehicular attacks against Israelis since October scaring away visitors.
Hotels that often have 90% occupancy around Christmas are less than half full. The lobby of the Manger Square (pictured) hotel was deserted on a recent morning, save for a lone Russian priest tapping away on an iPad. “I haven’t had a single customer all week,” said Mustafa Alawi, an accountant who works as a tour guide because he cannot find work in his field.
A quarter of Bethlehem residents are jobless; more than 20% live below the poverty line. “We suffer from the highest rate of unemployment, of poverty, in the West Bank,” says the mayor, Vera Baboun. Many of the tourists who do visit stay for only a few hours. Israelis are barred from visiting Palestinian cities, but in 2010 the military allowed dozens of tour guides to cross the checkpoint from Jerusalem into Bethlehem.
The Palestinian Authority (PA) welcomed that decision, calling it a sign of improved security in the occupied territories. The residents of Bethlehem did not rate it. Israeli coaches disgorge hundreds of passengers in Manger Square in the morning; after a quick tour, a souvenir stop, and perhaps a quick lunch, they return to Jerusalem.
Security concerns are only part of a wider malaise. With the political process and the job market both stagnant, a growing number of young people, even those with advanced degrees, are being forced into the informal economy, or to seek opportunity abroad—or, it seems, to rob their neighbours.
A few dozen thefts hardly seems the most pressing concern amidst a rash of violence that has killed 22 Israelis and more than 120 Palestinians (two-thirds of them attackers shot dead in the act). But Israeli officials describe the assailants as desperate young people with nothing to lose. Their profile sounds familiar on the increasingly mean streets of Jesus’s birthplace. “We have nothing to offer them,” Mr Alawi said. “What do you expect to happen?”