Bethlehem Prepares for Christmas.
By Meredith Buel (VOA-Bethlehem)
For many believers around the world, the town of Bethlehem is what these millennium celebrations are all about. It is, after all, the place where Christian teaching says Jesus was born 2,000 years ago. But this year, Bethlehem is also especially important to the Palestinian people - Christians and non-Christians alike. This is because the Palestinian Authority self-rule government is counting on Bethlehem to spur the economy of its planned independent Palestinian nation.
For many Palestinians, "the hopes and fears of all the years" are centered on Bethlehem. For it is in Bethlehem that the Palestinian Authority has focused almost all of its efforts to rebuild part of the territories occupied for decades by Israel.
Nearly $200 million in public and private funds is being spent to give this town a giant facelift and turn it into a Palestinian showcase for the rest of the world to see.
The reconstruction and rebuilding of Bethlehem is going on at a frantic pace as the millennium approaches. New roads, hotels, restaurants, shopping arcades and other facilities are almost ready.
The entire area around the Church of the Nativity - built over the site where tradition says Jesus was born - has been renovated. Manger Square, which just a few years ago was a parking lot, is now an attractive plaza for tourists. A $5 million "peace center" has been built that will house a nativity museum, bookstores, computer facilities, exhibitions and tourist information stations.
The mayor of Bethlehem, Hanna Nasser, concedes the construction will continue well into the year 2000 when he hopes more than 2 million tourists will visit his city.
Nasser says the economic benefits should help the nearly 150,000 Palestinians who live in the area. One cloud on Bethlehem's otherwise bright horizon is the potential for civil unrest. Palestinians rioted earlier this year to protest the shooting of a local man by an Israeli soldier. Future incidents could hurt tourism.