Magazine article Washington Report on Middle East Affairs

Countdown to Bethlehem 2000 Has International, Local Project Managers Scurrying to Completion

Magazine article Washington Report on Middle East Affairs

Countdown to Bethlehem 2000 Has International, Local Project Managers Scurrying to Completion

Article excerpt

Countdown to Bethlehem 2000 Has International, Local Project Managers Scurrying to Completion

For Christians it is the place where the story begins, a real place to those who have made a pilgrimage to the Holy Land, for others a mythical place recited in the songs and prayers of the season. The name calls to mind lovely pastoral scenes of lambs and shepherds, cozy cave-like dwellings, groves of olive trees and winding, narrow ways made for donkeys and prophets.

In reality, however, Bethlehem is a ghetto, a slum piled up with garbage, its ancient stone buildings crumbling under the weight of decades of strife and neglect. It is a town of shortages, deficient in water, housing and employment, but struggling to be reborn after Madrid and Oslo and Wye through a process of transformation called the Bethlehem 2000 Project, an ambitious development plan attracting millions of dollars from foreign governments and international development agencies. It is a marketing campaign targeting those among the world's one billion Christians and others who might make the journey to Bethlehem during the first year of the new millennium.

The guiding vision of Bethlehem 2000 is to encourage millions of tourists and pilgrims to visit Bethlehem as history enters the third millennium of Christianity, to promote the town's rich history and enhance economic development in Palestine, particularly the tourism industry. Since the summer of 1998, projects have been underway to rehabilitate Bethlehem town, to strengthen and improve its infrastructure of roads and utilities, provide more services for the anticipated legions of visitors, build new hotels to accommodate them, and to renovate the historic core of Bethlehem, its treasured old buildings and pedestrian walkways, most importantly the 1,700-year-old Nativity Church and Nativity Square.

For as long as most people can remember, Bethlehem has had extremely inadequate services, a dilapidated electrical grid causing regular power outages, leaky water pipes that contribute to severe water shortages, an inadequate sanitation and sewage system, and roads that have never been repaired. Neighboring communities, like Beit Sahour and Beit Jala, will also benefit from the rehabilitation effort with funds from the World Bank that will be used to restore key historic buildings.

The Bethlehem 2000 Project also includes a program of events beginning in December 1999 and continuing throughout the year 2000, concluding at Easter of 2001. The project was formed when peace seemed on the horizon and with the promise of international financial support.

Most agree that it was a group of faculty members at Bethlehem University who formed the Municipal Council for Bethlehem 2000 working group in 1995. That group consisted of Qustandi Shomali, Musa Darwish, Adnan Musallem, and Saleem Zoughbi, who volunteered their tune and resources to raise awareness of the project.

Dr. Shomali, who with his wife, Sawsan Shomali, also on the faculty at BU, has published an information booklet called Bethlehem 2000, A Guide to Bethlehem and its Surroundings, said that he wrote a letter to Bethlehem's Mayor Elias Freij in March 1996 to persuade him of "the importance of forming an independent committee for this event."

Dr. Shomali and the other three on the committee also decided to organize an international conference with the support of UNESCO. That conference was held at Bethlehem University in June 1996.

Saleem Zoughbi, professor of computer science at Bethlehem University who also was one of the first four organizers, said that the late mayor of Bethlehem, Elias Freij became too ill to perform the functions of committee leader and the job was passed on to Hanan Ashrawi.

The Council developed a planning document calling for a global funding effort and met with Palestinian Authority President Yasser Arafat for the first time in August 1996, giving him their recommendation that it was time for the Palestinian Authority to establish a ministry-level committee. …

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