BETHLEHEM, West Bank — Bethlehem's first female mayor, Vera Baboun, can't walk through the main square of the biblical town without being stopped by admirers.
"This is our new mayor, who is turning Bethlehem into one of the greatest cities in the world," a tour guide hollered to a group of Christian tourists passing by the Church of the Nativity, built over the grotto where tradition says Jesus was born.
Starting with Christmas celebrations — the high point of the year in the town — Baboun is hoping to turn things around in the troubled city. For the past seven years, the Islamic Hamas militant group had a strong presence in Bethlehem's leadership, prompting a cutoff of international aid funds. But they lost their seats in October elections that brought in Baboun, who is Christian, as Bethlehem's mayors traditionally are.
The local economy is battered, with the highest unemployment in the West Bank, and local Christians continue to leave Bethlehem, which years ago moved from a Christian majority to a Muslim one. But Baboun is trying to raise hope, pointing to the Palestinans' recent boost of status at the United Nations.
"We still have a long way to go, but the Christmas season is special this year because not only do we celebrate the birth of Christ, but we are celebrating the birth of the Palestinian state," Baboun said, standing next to a 55-foot Christmas tree. "It is a Christmas of peace, of hope and love."
The U.N. General Assembly's vote last month to upgrade the Palestinians' status to that of a nonmember observer state set off celebrations across the West Bank.
The move changed little on the ground, with Israel opposing the U.N. recognition bid and saying it bypassed peace negotiations aimed at establishing a state.
Bethlehem, like the rest of the West Bank, fell onto hard times after the violent Palestinian uprising against Israel broke out in late 2000, frightening tourists and pilgrims away. As the fighting has subsided, the tourists have returned in larger numbers. Last year's Christmas Eve celebration produced the highest turnout in more than a decade, with about 100,000 visitors, including foreigners and Arab Christians from Israel, reaching Bethlehem.
The Israeli Tourism Ministry said it expects 75,000 tourists to arrive for Christmas this year, citing last month's clash between Israel and Palestinian militants in Gaza as a reason for the drop.
Israel turned control of Bethlehem over to the Palestinian Authority a few days before Christmas in 1995, and since then it has become an independence celebration for local Palestinians, as well as a religious holiday for Christians. The square is filled with a mix of tourists, pilgrims and young Palestinians, making it hard to determine how many tourists are there.
The Christmas season is the mainstay of Bethlehem's economy. When tourism lags because of politics or violence, the town lurches into depression. Baboun hopes to revitalize her town's depressed economy through tourism. She said Bethlehem has the highest unemployment rate in the West Bank, at around 20 percent. U.N. figures say unemployment in the West Bank is 17 percent, a figure that may well under-represent the economic crisis, given the large numbers of underemployed in the West Bank.
The mayor is also looking for a return of international aid to the town after Hamas dropped out of the municipal council.