Famous for the past, Bethlehem needs help now
On this day each year, the world’s attention focuses on Bethlehem, the small town important to all three Abrahamic religions for being the city of David, the birthplace of Jesus and the site of Rachel’s tomb. But more recently the town has found itself with a less beneficial notoriety as the symbol of Palestinian aspirations being strangled by encroaching Israeli settlements and the isolating effects of Israeli military checkpoints and the separation barrier. For an economy heavily reliant on faith-based tourism and a nominal 10-minute drive from Jerusalem, the result is to hamper Bethlehem from coming close to meeting its potential.
From tomorrow, the attention on the town will fade again for another year. However the world’s focus should remain on it, because the problems afflicting it are emblematic of the problems faced by Palestinians generally and will need to be resolved if there is ever to be a just resolution with the Israelis.
Any successful society needs a burgeoning middle class, but this is the sector of Bethlehem that has been hardest hit by the restrictions on freedom. The result has been a steady emigration from the town, mostly by Palestinian Christians who seek an easier life in other countries. At one point during the late Ottoman era, Bethlehem was 90 per cent Christian but now two thirds of its residents are Muslim, following an exodus of Christians as the town became the scene of some of the fiercest fighting during the second intifada.
The situation ought to have been improving, with the Palestinian Authority announcing that an Italian heritage restoration company had been awarded the job of restoring part of the Church of the Nativity, which since the 4th century has been located at the reputed site of Jesus’s birth and which is the oldest church still in daily use.
But only €2 million (Dh10m) has been raised of the estimated €15 million needed to restore the entire structure. Although visitor numbers are slowly rising, most are tourists who stay in hotels in Israel and who visit briefly by bus and put little back into the local economy. For most of the year, many of the 3,700 hotel rooms in Bethlehem remain empty.
The people of Bethlehem deserve better than just an annual day in the spotlight, focusing on an event thousands of years ago, when there is such desperate need for improvement right now.
Updated: December 24, 2013 04:00 AM