ROME, 19 February — Participants at the Bethlehem 2000 International Conference, being held at the headquarters of the Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO), were briefed on the preparations for the millennium celebration and the status of international support for the Bethlehem 2000 Project of the Palestinian Authority. The Conference is sponsored by the Committee on the Exercise of the Inalienable Rights of the Palestinian People and supported by the Italian Government.

Nabeel Kassis, Minister, Coordinator-General of the Bethlehem 2000 Project Authority, said the Authority viewed Bethlehem as the source of the millennium and therefore wanted to make Bethlehem 2000 the star of this religious and historic event of universal significance.

He hoped Bethlehem 2000 would be a springboard for the economic development for the district of Bethlehem and Palestine beyond the millennium, as well as an opportunity to build peace and stability in the region. The Authority considered that Bethlehem 2000 was a possible locomotive for regional cooperation in the very important sector of tourism, centred on infrastructure (the building of hotels, restaurants and transportation, and so on), human resource development (tour guides), and marketing and communication. The latter was an extremely important aspect of tourist development but was currently under-funded. Only $8 million (20 per cent of the total needed) had been committed to date.

The Minister said the long period of occupation had hampered infrastructure projects in the district tremendously, and building work worth $109 million was now under way, including essential power, sewage and road network projects. The rehabilitation of most of the access roads to Bethlehem by the end of this year, and the provision of adequate water and electricity supplies would make private investment a more attractive prospect, particularly in the tourist sector.

Other important areas covered by the Bethlehem 2000 Project included cultural heritage (where projects had been designed totalling $32 million, of which $21 million had already been committed), private sector development (where a total of $100 million out of a planned $180 million had already been committed), services (where funding opportunities were very much available as nothing had been committed and the Authority estimated that $6 to $7 million would be needed), and a programme of cultural events to be coordinated with the various churches around various themes.

A considerable funding gap still existed and the Project could use further financial and technical help to enhance the historic city, but the Authority was confident that it would be able to deliver to the world something it would be proud of.

Hanna Nasser, Mayor of Bethlehem, said that Bethlehem epitomized the religious, social, cultural and intellectual heritage of all mankind and the renovation of the town and its development was therefore a responsibility to be shouldered and shared by the international community.

Christ's message of peace on earth and goodwill to all men was an important and joyous one, which created a turning point in our world, as well as in our souls. As Christ's birth place, Bethlehem had been the city of great holiness and the cradle of Christianity, and on the threshold of the year 2000, people's hearts and minds were directed towards it as the focus of the millennium celebrations and for the renewal of faith, hope and peace, he said.

The Mayor reminded the Conference that December 1995 saw the first celebrations in history under the Palestinian flag, and after 27 years of harsh Israeli occupation of the city. The Palestinian Authority launched the Bethlehem 2000 project in 1996, as a further step towards a Palestinian renaissance and the consolidation of the Middle East peace process.

He said that while the primary dimension of the project was religious, it also had a political one: the preparations for the second millennium coincided with the planned declaration of a Palestinian state as the interim period outlined in the Oslo Accords came to an end. The Project should also have a positive economic impact on the region, and raise its inhabitants' living standards. Tourism was destined to form the backbone of the Palestinian economy, and the Project would put Bethlehem back on the tourist map after three decades of extensive neglect.

Nabil Sarraf, Vice-President, Palestine Development and Investment Company, said that due to the stagnating peace process in the region, after an excellent start, private sector investment in the region had lost momentum. But the private sector in Palestine would continue to make a contribution to the Bethlehem 2000 Project.

The Vice-President said that large and medium-sized private corporations were currently involved in several infrastructure and development projects in the Bethlehem area. One example was provided by the Palestinian shareholding company PADICO, which formed part of a consortium to build a five-star, 250-room hotel. The $45 million project will incorporate the historic building known as the Jasir Palace, located at the entrance to the city.

Another example was the multi-story bus terminal next to the Church of the Nativity, in the city centre. The Municipality of Bethlehem recently approved the project and contracted it to Palestinian Real Estate Investment Company.

Small entrepreneurs in the region were centred on family businesses such as restaurants, souvenir shops and bed-and-breakfasts, and it was hoped their numbers would grow. To encourage them, the authorities needed to develop a plan for small and medium-type investors, organize seminars and workshops, increase government expertise and make soft loans available for new investment or upgrading.

Since 1994, hundreds upon thousands of potential Palestinian investors had visited Gaza and the West Bank and many private and public shareholding companies with relatively sizably capital had been established. Commercial banks had played an important role in strengthening the economy and advancing the developmental process. By the end of 1998, there were 22 banks in Gaza and the West Bank, compared with 7 in 1994.

Insurance companies, engineering offices, contracting companies, factories and many other sectors had seen similar growth. The issuance of a new law to encourage investment and the hopefully successful passage of a new tax law lowering the flat rate to 10/12 per cent for all entrepreneurs were both extremely helpful initiatives.

Valdo Spini, President of the Parliamentary Association of Italy/Israel said that he welcomed Bethlehem 2000 as a very meaningful initiative, directed towards peace and dialogue in the Middle East. Peace must start in our consciousness, in our souls, he stressed.

He stated that religious pluralism was extremely important in the region, to counter intolerance and facilitate the peaceful coexistence of the Jewish, Muslim and Christian communities (including members of the Catholic, Protestant and Orthodox churches).

He said one of his most impressive memories of the region was a visit to Jerusalem in 1993, when he met Prime Minister Rabin, a real martyr of the peace process between Israelis and Palestinians in the original sense of the world, that is to say somebody whose faith is a witness to peace and cooperation. The occasion was a round table on the crucial issue of water and the environment, one of the first meetings between Israelis and Palestinians. The issue of cooperation over water development was one of the most meaningful examples of how much work remained to be done to secure peace, he stressed.

He stated that there was no alternative to peace and to the complete respect of all the agreements in which all the parties were engaged. The affirmation of the inalienable rights of the Palestinian people was strictly connected with the peace process, with a peace which was just, secure and stable for everybody. There was no alternative to peace and security for Israel.

The presentations were followed by statements of representatives of governments, United Nations bodies and agencies, and non-governmental organizations. Statements were made by representatives of Namibia, Germany (on behalf of the European Union), Pakistan, San Marino, Indonesia, Cuba, Greece, Switzerland, Norway and the Czech Republic, as well as by representatives of the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) and the World Food Programme (WFP).

Representatives of the following civil society organizations also made statements: City Council of Palermo, Union of Palestinian American Women, European Coordinating Committee for NGOs on the Question of Palestine, Islamic Chamber of Commerce, World Family Organization, World Alliance of YMCA, Palestinian Council for Justice and Peace and the General Federation of Arab Women.

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Document symbol: GA/PAL/794
Document Type: Press Release
Document Sources: Committee on the Exercise of the Inalienable Rights of the Palestinian People (CEIRPP)
Subject: Bethlehem 2000
Publication Date: 19/02/1999