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Israeli Arabs Seek Refuge in Bethlehem

After spending three weeks in a bomb shelter in northern Israel, Rashid Khoury and his friends are lounging around a spacious hotel lobby in Bethlehem.

They are among a handful of Israeli Arabs who have fled to the town where Jesus was born, seeking refuge from Hezbollah rocket attacks. Their presence has given a modest boost to the Palestinian tourism industry just when it needs it most.

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The fighting between Hezbollah and Israel has turned tourists away from Bethlehem, threatening the backbone of the town's economy. Christian groups canceled their pilgrimages to the town because many didn't want to travel to the region if they couldn't also visit holy sites in northern Israel, said George Abu Aita, owner of the Paradise Hotel.

After years of stagnation following the outbreak of Israeli-Palestinian violence in 2000, Bethlehem's tourism industry had been reviving somewhat this year. Abu Aita's hotel was recently renovated and reopened after being destroyed by the Israeli army during the first two years of fighting with the Palestinians.

"Then this war came and all of the groups canceled," Abu Aita said.

Filling the gap are about 200 Israeli Arabs who have fled their homes in Haifa and the Galilee area bordering Lebanon, renting apartments or hotel rooms in the biblical-era town near Jerusalem, hotel owners say.

Rashid Khoury, 39, who does odd jobs for a living in his village of Fasouta, said he and his friends chose Bethlehem because "it's cheaper, and they speak Arabic."

The Israeli Arab visitors, though not big spenders, are pumping some money into the local economy, eating lunch and dinner at restaurants because hotels only serve breakfast, Abu Aita said.

The new visitors spend most of their days glued to the television, watching the latest on the violence and wondering when they will be able to go home, Abu Aita said.

Israeli Arabs often find themselves squeezed between their sympathy for West Bank Palestinians and their need to coexist with Israel's Jewish majority. Many of them belong to clans with members on both sides, causing some tension.

Arabs make up around 20 percent of Israel's population. They have full citizenship and carry Israeli passports, but suffer from discrimination that has often kept them in the lowest sectors of society.

Bethlehem, about three miles south of Jerusalem, is behind the separation barrier that Israel is building in the West Bank. Israel says the wall is meant to stop Palestinian suicide bombers but Palestinians see it as land grab.

While it is difficult for West Bank Palestinians to cross the barrier, Israeli Arabs can often move freely between Israel and the Palestinian territories.

"We don't have any tourists coming, so it's good, but we don't want to say it's good in this situation because we don't want to see them in this bad situation," Abu Aita said.