Magazine article Washington Report on Middle East Affairs

As Bethlehem Prepares for Millennium Tourism, Israelis Are Increasing the Obstacles

Magazine article Washington Report on Middle East Affairs

As Bethlehem Prepares for Millennium Tourism, Israelis Are Increasing the Obstacles

Article excerpt

As Bethlehem Prepares for Millennium Tourism, Israelis Are Increasing the Obstacles

Middle Eastern sun streaking through clouds of construction dust has been as common a sight in Bethlehem lately as are falafel stands and streetside chicken roasters. The effort to ready the "little town" for millions of millennial pilgrims has been underway nonstop for months, and construction teams are working more relentlessly than ever to finish the job. While some streets around Manger Square are still gutted for the routing of new water lines, electricity and updated telephone service, many are freshly finished with white, hand-etched stone bricks laid one at a time by skilled locals. Meanwhile, a specially trained force of multilingual tourist police don sharp navy uniforms and shiny name tags, as they stand prepared to assure visitors of a warm Palestinian welcome.

However, on Oct. 31 Ha'aretz, Israel's English-language daily, reported that the U.S. State Department, which gets its information from the embassy in Tel Aviv, the consulate in Jerusalem and various news sources, issued a warning to Americans to exercise caution when traveling in Bethlehem. This warning will be on record for public consumption with the information officers at the State Department through the first of February 2000. According to a State Department Consular Services representative, the West Bank is always listed as an area of instability. However, both Bethlehem and Ramallah (a Palestinian town that hasn't seen recent violence but which is becoming a draw for tourists from nearby Jerusalem) are to be considered more dangerous now than usual.

Toward the end of October clashes did occur for several days in Bethlehem between Palestinian teenage boys who threw rocks and Israeli soldiers who dispersed them with tear gas and rubber-coated bullets. The skirmishes were provoked by the daily sealing off at odd intervals of the border between Bethlehem and Jerusalem. But tourists making their pilgrimage to Bethlehem, five miles from the center of Jerusalem, continued their trek to the Basilica of the Nativity on Manger Square via an alternate route into Bethlehem, taking little notice of the scrapes. And those lodging in Bethlehem went about their days unaffected by the events unless they happened to be near the border, where the clashes took place. According to the Palestinian Ministry of Tourism, no visitors were hurt, and no tours were canceled.

In fact, Bethlehem has no history of tourists sustaining injuries as a result of domestic conflict, according to Mariam Shaheen, press coordinator for the development project Bethlehem 2000. "Not a single tourist has ever been hurt in Bethlehem. The track record speaks for itself," she says. "It's very unfortunate when the State Department punishes the victims instead of the perpetrators."

By "perpetrators" Shaheen means the Israeli administration. The stone-throwing began as a result of an unfortunately timed change in the structure of Bethlehem's border crossing. Lack of mobility is a familiar insult and aggravation to Bethlehemites and all other West Bankers, most of whom are not permitted to enter Jerusalem at all. But these closures marked the beginning of an Israeli project to install a permanent checkpoint for crossing from Bethlehem to Jerusalem instead of the "temporary" one in place since the intifada.

The new border passage, fashioned after the Erez checkpoint cutting off Gaza from Israel and the West Bank, will operate on the same terms as Erez, with special lines for VIPs and tourists, while Palestinians will cross unseen by way of a different street. The crossing procedures will change as well. Now it is possible to get a shared taxi, or "service," from Bethlehem to Jerusalem, making one stop at the checkpoint towers on the main road to show permits, passports and IDs to armed Israeli soldiers. Under the new system, Palestinians will not be able to cross the border in taxis. …

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