BETHLEHEM, West Bank, Dec. 27 (JTA) — After a great deal of pre- Christmas hype, Palestinian residents of Bethlehem gathered in Manger Square last Friday afternoon and wondered where all the tourists were.
Palestinian officials say U.S. government warnings of the possibility of terrorism kept the expected unprecedented waves of pilgrims home.
Thousands of tourists eventually showed up for Christmas Eve festivities and visited the Church of the Nativity, believed to stand over the spot where Jesus was born. But the estimated 15,000 visitors fell far short of Palestinian projections of more than 50,000, raising questions about whether the expected huge influx of tourists in Israel and the Palestinian areas during 2000 will actually occur.
“This year is special, everything here is new and well organized,” said Arteen Nalbandyan, a 53-year-old Palestinian-Armenian church mural painter from Bethlehem. “But we still have not seen that many tourists. There was an increase last month, but now they all seem to have gone home.”
Manger Square is the centerpiece of the $200 million Bethlehem 2000 project, supported by the international community to beautify Bethlehem for the millennium. For Palestinian Authority President Yasser Arafat, it is also meant to make territory under his control, rather than Israel’s, as the destination of choice for Christian pilgrims.
Arafat is rumored to have threatened workers that if they did not finish their millennium construction jobs on time, he would throw them in prison.
In the days before Christmas, workers raced against the clock to complete the transformation of Manger Square, once a grimy bus depot, into a pleasant, tree-lined plaza and install a large modern stage for Christmas celebrations. Mostly unarmed Palestinian police were everywhere to ensure that nothing went wrong.
Bethlehem bore little resemblance to the way it was in the days before Israeli troops pulled out just before Christmas 1995. Newly paved roads, hotels and an international peace center all combine to create a spirit of rebirth in this town just a few miles from Jerusalem.
Under a bright Middle Eastern sun, Palestinian youth bands marched proudly into the square as they do each year. They were greeted by thousands of joyous Palestinians, but only a few Western tourists.
“Maybe they are afraid of fringe groups and suicide cults,” said Simon Minassian, a 20-year-old Palestinian Christian student from Jerusalem. “We were a bit disappointed because we were looking forward to more festivities.”
The tourists who did come to Bethlehem for the pre-Christmas Eve celebrations were joyous. “It’s really something to be here in the place where it all happened,” said Nathaniel Miller, a 19-year-old college student from Rhode Island. “But I have heard that some people are a bit paranoid about the millennium.”
Eugene Rarey, 50, from Ohio, had been to Bethlehem before and noticed the improvement in the setting. “There seems to be a quiet in the atmosphere,” he said. “Probably everyone’s been scared away.”
Palestinian officials were angered at a U.S. announcement last week warning tourists to avoid large Christmas and New Year crowds because of possible terrorism.
“The warning has done a lot of harm,” said Bethlehem Mayor Hanna Nasser. The Palestinians, he said, “are going to pay the price for this economically when the expected number of tourists do not come.”
By Christmas Eve, the crowds of tourists arrived and visitors joyously sang carols at the square. Among the visitors to Bethlehem were world leaders such as Spanish Prime Minister Jose Maria Aznar and Italian Prime Minister Massimo D’Alema, who attended the traditional midnight Mass at a church adjacent to the Church of the Nativity.
Michel Sabbah, the Latin patriarch who conducted the service, said he hoped the “peace that has begun will find a just conclusion for all, Palestinians and Israelis.”