Magazine article Washington Report on Middle East Affairs

O Little Town of Bethlehem

Magazine article Washington Report on Middle East Affairs

O Little Town of Bethlehem

Article excerpt

THE NEXT DAY, July 21, we visited Bethlehem, a town dying without its tourist industry. What should have been a 15 to 20 minute trip from Ramallah took us two hours.

Bethlehem belongs to Christians all over the world, Mayor Hanna Nasser, himself a Christian, told us in his office. "Muslims have a duty to visit their holy places," he pointed out. Likewise, he insisted, "Christians should visit Jesus' birthplace."

Bethlehem is now a desolate place, its shops boarded, its streets strewn with trash. Its hotels are closed, as are all but a handful of restaurants. Manger Square, normally packed with tour buses jostling for parking spaces, was all but deserted when we arrived. Several trinket vendors, desperate for a sale, appeared from nowhere. Two nuns walked together, talking quietly, across the vast, empty plaza.

Bethlehem is a holy city dependent upon visitors for its economic viability. Since Israel's siege of the Church of the Nativity, however, few tourists visit the holy sites, according to Bethlehem Mayor Hanna Nasser.

The Palestinian Authority, with international help, invested large sums into the restoration of Bethlehem in anticipation of the celebrations surrounding the 2,000th birthday of Jesus. Those improvements were destroyed by the siege, or else crushed by the tanks rumbling in and out of the ancient city.

Next to Rachel's Tomb, the traditional pilgrims' route between Jerusalem and Bethlehem now is barricaded and impassable. "It's a big shame to put the wall at the entrance to Bethlehem," said Mayor Nasser. …

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