• December 23, 2008
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    Memories of Bethlehem
Memories of Bethlehem I was there to write about Christian travel in the Holy Land, 60% of Israel's tourism at the time. These were optimistic days and at the time, I wrote that this "dusty cul-de-sac on the Holy Land tourism map, is being reborn."

A revitalization campaign, called Bethlehem 2000, is under way, a multimillion-dollar project that leads the nascent tourism development efforts in the West Bank and Gaza -- Palestinian areas that acquired limited autonomy in 1994 for the first time in centuries....

But potential vacationers shouldn't expect too much -- yet. "We have been absent 30 years from the tourism market. It's going to take time to catch up," says George Ghanem of the tourism ministry, as he shows visitors through Bethlehem's construction chaos.

On view or in the works are more than $58 million in infrastructure projects, $20.6 million in cultural heritage preservation and promotion, and $2.3 million in tourism development. Much of it is financed from donations and loans from a dozen nations worldwide, including $18 million from the United States.

Visitors to Manger Square arrive through streets repaved by Germany, go past stairways rebuilt by Norway and walk through a marketplace constructed by Japan. The square itself, rebuilt by Japan and the USA, is now a gracious stone-paved plaza, no longer a parking lot for tour buses. A Swedish-funded Peace Center is under construction nearby....

"People think of the streets of Bethlehem and they think of rocks flying in the intifada (street uprisings by Palestinian youth fighting Israeli occupation). Now we want people to see there is beauty and safety here. They can eat here, shop here," says Ghanem.

Ghanem was wrong then. By fall, the rocks were flying again in another violent confrontation between Palestinians and Israelis. Much of the reconstruction I saw was demolished or damaged.

So I read now of the revival, again, of Bethlehem with cheer -- and realism. There's no more quiet stroll from Jerusalem to Bethlehem. As the new story recounts:

Bethlehem is ringed on three sides by a barrier which Israel says is meant to keep out Palestinian militants. A large gray wall separates the city from nearby Jerusalem, and tourists entering Bethlehem must pass through a military checkpoint with barbed wire and watchtowers.

So what I have to remind me is a photo. I took it at Rachel's Tomb, a stop just inside the Israeli lines on the road to Bethlehem. Once the tomb of the matriarch was a modest shack surrounded by pines. Today, it's a bustling commercialized "shrine" where Jewish women pray. My photo didn't show the shack, however. It showed the sky through an embracing circle of pine boughs.

Perhaps such a glimpse of the sky is still open for all.