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The City of Bethlehem

Contributed by This Week In Palestine on 22.12.2010:

By Khalil Shokeh

This Week in Palestine

December 2010

The first historical reference to the city of Bethlehem appears in Tel Amarneh manuscripts discovered in the small village of Tel Amarneh between Thebes and Memphis in Egypt. The origin of the name of the city is Aramaic, meaning House of Bread. Its Biblical name is Ephrath which means “fertile.”

Bethlehem district stands on two plateaux at the elevation of 775 metres above sea level. The first plateau runs from east to west, and the second, which intersects with the first plateau, runs from north to south. The new city of Bethlehem stands on the second plateau. The district is 10 kilometres to the south of Jerusalem, and it consists of the cities of Beit Sahour, Beit Jala, the towns of Doha and Al-Khader, and the villages of Artas, in addition to the three refugee camps of Dheisheh, Aida, and Al-Azza.

The city of Bethlehem is a major holy site in the Holy Land, and it is visited by millions of Christian tourists from around the world. It houses the birthplace of Jesus Christ known as the Nativity Church, which was constructed by Emperor Constantine and his mother Helena in 340 AD. Tourism is Bethlehem’s primary industry and it accounts for approximately 65 percent of the city’s economy.

However, the charm and lustre of the city of Bethlehem began to vanish due to Israeli policies and practices, including the blockade imposed on the city. For the past few decades, the spiritual, economic, and cultural life of Bethlehem was closely linked with the city of Jerusalem, but the Israeli military authorities have isolated both cities entirely, which has a drastic effect on the economic, social, and cultural life of Bethlehem.

Nine Jewish settlements surround Bethlehem, and it is completely encircled by the apartheid Wall. The Israeli military authorities have confiscated the northern part of the city and continue to create a de facto situation by devastating agricultural land, segregating cities and villages in the district into enclaves, and restricting movement and access. This has resulted in the voluntary emigration of the population.

In spite of the challenges and obstacles that the city of Bethlehem has to cope with, it is regarded today as a centre and a hub for conferences and international and regional assemblies. For example, the city hosted the largest-ever economic conference in the Palestinian territories in May 2008, initiated by the Palestinian Authority. There are now 19 hotels in operation in Bethlehem, and 4 are still under construction. The city has 16 restaurants and more than 20 stores that sell olive wood carvings and mother-of-pearl handicrafts. In addition, Bethlehem houses several religious and cultural centres that attract thousands of tourists and pilgrims every year.

According to statistics from the records of the Tourism and Antiquities Police in Bethlehem, 946,246 tourists visited Bethlehem between the beginning of January and the end of October 2010, of whom 465,349 stayed at local hotels. In this respect, the Ministry of Tourism and Antiquities and the Ministry of Culture are strongly advised to organise tours and cultural activities that especially target pilgrims and tourists.

Bethlehem Municipality has managed, in cooperation with the Prime Minister’s Office and national economic organisations, to procure financial and technical support from international donors to set up an industrial zone south of the city. In addition, serious efforts are being made to include Bethlehem on UNESCO’s World Heritage List.

On the other hand, the city of Bethlehem continues to confront enormous challenges. First, there is not adequate space in the city to build such vital facilities as hospitals and schools. Another challenge that the city faces is traffic congestion due to the large number of public and private vehicles. In addition, there is a need to open new roads and renovate old roads in order to facilitate the movement of passengers and goods from the southern to the northern parts of the West Bank. Finally, the rate of unemployment, especially among young university graduates, continues to grow, resulting in their migration.

Thirteen percent of the land in Bethlehem is used for agriculture, eighteen percent is open land, and one percent of the land constitutes natural resources such as quarries. The total area of Bethlehem City is seven square kilometres, and the municipality and the local government in the Bethlehem district are urged to expand its borders and create new organisation areas to the south, otherwise the city will become a large open prison in light of the rapid increase in population and the influx of Palestinians from other parts of the West Bank into the city of Bethlehem. The population density in the city is estimated at 4,757 people per square kilometre.

In order to solve the problem of traffic congestion on the city roads of Bethlehem, the Ministry of Transportation and traffic departments must restrict issuing licenses to vehicles working in public service. The city has narrow roads that need renovation, and new roads and tunnels need to be opened.

Since unemployment is a serious problem in Bethlehem, the government has the responsibility to create alternatives and promulgate legislation and laws to control unemployment. More work opportunities and projects need to be introduced and implemented.

This is a call to all local officials to work together in order to find solutions to problems and improve the living conditions in the city of Bethlehem.

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