There’s room at the Inn: More evidence Catherine Philp misled on Bethlehem

In our post on Dec. 25, we commented on a tendentious and highly misleading story published by Catherine Philp at The Times (Settlements choke peace in little town of Bethlehem) which argued that Israeli settlement policy was choking religious and economic life in the “fabled biblical town” and causing Christians to flee.  

Specifically, we demonstrated that Philp made two significant errors:

  • She falsely claimed that Israeli settlements “encircle” Bethlehem.
  • She falsely claimed that Bethlehem is more densely populated than Gaza (a claim later corrected following our communication with Times editors).

Additionally, Philps’ piece was extremely misleading, as it completely ignored the primary reason for the Christian exodus from the town – the threat of violence and intimidation from Islamist extremists, mirroring the root cause of the flight of Christians from the Middle East more broadly. But, there was another implicit narrative advanced by Philps – and other journalists who have engaged in the annual Bethlehem-centered Israel bashing tradition: that tourism (and economic life in general) has been negatively affected by Israeli settlements and the security fence.

Interestingly, a report in the Jan. 3rd Jerusalem Post (print edition) by Omri Gaster, citing stats compiled by the Jerusalem Institute for Israel Studies (JIIS) – based on numbers from the Palestinian Central Bureau of Statistics (PCBS) – further contradict Philps’ story.  According to the report, Bethlehem has become a tourist destination which in some ways “rival[s] the city of Jerusalem”.

(Note about the graph below: Though the PCBS includes both Hebron and Bethlehem in Palestine’s “Southern District”, the overwhelming majority of the tourist trade is concentrated in Bethlehem. So, the data illustrated below refers primarily to overnight hotel stays in Bethlehem.)

graph

As the author notes, in 2009 there were 287,000 hotel stays recorded in Bethlehem, while in 2012 the figure reached 550,000 – a 92 percent increase over the course of only four years.  According to the JIIS, the primary factor behind this increase was a greater number of European tourists staying overnight in the city.

Musicians perform on stage in Manger Square, outside the Church of the Nativity, the site revered as the birthplace of Jesus, Bethlehem, Dec. 1, 2013.
Musicians perform on stage in Manger Square, outside the Church of the Nativity, Bethlehem, Dec. 1, 2013.

Moreover, such increasing hotel stays reflect broader economic trends, such as the fact that the overall number of visitors to Bethlehem has been increasing steadily over the years – a number which now approaches 2 million visitors annually.  

Over the last two years, we’ve fisked stories about Bethlehem published at the Guardian – by Harriet Sherwood and Phoebe Greenwood – advancing misleading narratives about the alleged Israeli economic strangulation of the Christian holy city similar to Philps’ story in the Times, and again we come to the same conclusion:  There seems to be little if any actual empirical data to indicate that the presence of settlements (or the security fence) is having an injurious economic impact on Bethlehem.

Related articles

Written By
More from Adam Levick