Over-crowded Bethlehem facing a traffic ‘crisis’

It may be the biblical place of grottos and shepherds’ fields in the minds of many, but Bethlehem is a modern, densely populated town of 28,000, with a maze of small streets that practically guarantee traffic jams. Now, officials are considering a dramatic solution to the problem — digging a tunnel under Manger Square.
Drivers try not to crash into other cars as they crawl past the Church of the Nativity in Bethlehem on December 14, 2014. Nasser Shiyoukhi/AP Photo
Drivers try not to crash into other cars as they crawl past the Church of the Nativity in Bethlehem on December 14, 2014. Nasser Shiyoukhi/AP Photo

BETHLEHEM // It’s Christmas time and the little town of Bethlehem is jammed with a big-city problem: traffic congesting streets everywhere, including around the church marking the spot where Jesus is said to have been born.

Now, officials are considering a dramatic solution to the problem — digging a tunnel under Manger Square.

Traffic is a year-round problem in Bethlehem, where urban development problems are endless. The Palestinian town is hemmed in on several sides by Israel’s separation barrier and Jewish settlements, leaving its residents with little choice but to build and expand vertically.

And this is a problem for Bethlehem, which, despite being the biblical place of inns and stables in the minds of many, is today a densely populated town of 28,000 people, with a maze of small streets that practically guarantee traffic jams.

“Bethlehem is going through a crisis,” said Anton Salman, a city councillor. “We think that the solution to this traffic is to build an underground passage between the two sides of the square.”

The municipality hopes to eventually build several tunnels around the town, which is a main transit point between northern and southern parts of the West Bank.

The area around Nativity Church — built over the site where Christians believe Jesus was born — is particularly busy, with a mix of tourists swarming the area and cars squeezing across the central Manger Square. Streets all around face a constant backlog because of traffic in the square, where beeping horns are heard as much as clanging church bells.

During the festive season, the square is closed for annual events like the Christmas tree lighting and Christmas Eve celebrations, which plunges nearby traffic into even deeper chaos.

The municipality’s plan proposes an 80-metre-long tunnel that would take about two years to complete and cost between US$4 million (Dh14.7m) and $5m. Manger Square would be closed to cars entirely, and turned into a pedestrian expanse.

The Palestinian Authority is pledging to foot the bill and if the plan is approved, construction could start next autumn.

But the tunnel project could run into problems before work has even begun. The municipality would need to get a stamp of approval from the UN’s cultural agency Unesco, which has listed the Nativity Church as a world heritage site. In addition, because the tunnel would pass near Nativity Church’s grounds, officials from each of the three denominations that administer the site would need to be involved.

“If Joseph and Mary came back to Bethlehem, they would be shocked,” said Mazen Karam, director of the Bethlehem Development Foundation, which helped to draft the tunnel proposal. “Bethlehem doesn’t deserve to be crowded with people and heavy traffic. It should be more open with wide spaces so people can go and enjoy the home of Jesus.”

* Associated Press

Published: December 23, 2014 04:00 AM

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