Bethlehem to hold holiday rock festival

BETHLEHEM, West Bank — A young musician who grew up near Jesus' traditional birthplace feels the old-fashioned way of marking the Christmas holiday — hanging around Manger Square and listening to carols — is a little dull.

So Emmanuel Fleckenstein has organized a three-day battle of the bands that he hopes will attract bigger crowds to Bethlehem. City elders, worried about putting off traditional pilgrims, are keeping the wailing electric guitars and pounding drums at a safe distance from the Church of the Nativity.

"We prefer that in Manger Square, we have the traditional music, the traditional choirs, the traditional Christmas carols," said Bethlehem Mayor Victor Batarseh.

The festival's nine foreign and four local acts are mostly performing on an outdoor stage at Bethlehem University. Here, said Fleckenstein, guitar player for the Austrian pop rock band Cardiac Move, "we can get as loud as we want."

On Christmas Eve, though, Fleckenstein's four-man band gets to play in the prime venue, Manger Square, and, in a nod to the occasion, will end its 45-minute set with a rendition of "Silent Night."

The festival, modest in scale, is a sign of Bethlehem's gradual revival as a tourist attraction, after gloomy years when the Israeli-Palestinian conflict all but shut down the city.

In 2009, some 2 million tourists visited the Palestinian territories, or four times the 2007 figure, and 80 percent came to Bethlehem, said the Palestinian tourism minister, Khuloud Deibes. More Bethlehem hotels are being built, increasing the number of rooms from 2,000 to 3,000 by next year, she said.

The tourism boomlet is part of efforts by Palestinian Prime Minister Salam Fayyad to spur economic growth in the West Bank and restore a sense of normality, even as efforts to restart peace talks remain deadlocked.

In marketing Bethlehem, city officials seek to assure potential visitors that they are safe while not glossing over the hardships of life under Israeli military rule.

Some 15,000 visitors are expected on Christmas Eve, about the same as last year, said Tony Morcos, a city official.

Fleckenstein, the fledgling music impresario, said it's time for new ideas.

The son of a Palestinian mother and German father, he grew up in Beit Jalla, near Bethlehem. He said he had the inspiration for the rock festival after last year's family visit to Manger Square.

"It was really sad here, there was not much to do," Fleckenstein said of last year's festivities.