BETHLEHEM, WEST BANK — The countdown to a big Holy Land celebration has begun: In less than four years, millions of tourists will descend on Jerusalem, Bethlehem, and Nazareth to fete the 2,000th anniversary of Jesus' birth (even though the date is disputed).
But the party will be a big test of whether Israelis and Palestinians can set aside political differences and cooperate to usher in the massive wave of Christian pilgrims.
Signs of trouble were already evident in this year's attempt to get a 40-foot tree - donated by Finland - into Bethlehem's Manger Square.
The tree never made it. Instead it's rotting at a nearby port, where Israeli officials stopped its entry, claiming it could be diseased.
"This is an excuse," says Bethlehem's Palestinian Mayor Elias Freij, calling the move "narrow-minded and provocative." But Israel is steadfast: The tree "could affect all the trees in Israel," says spokesman Shlomo Dror. The Palestinians, Mr. Dror says, did not try coordinate the tree delivery with Israel, which often doesn't allow entry of foreign plants.
In Bethlehem, now under the control of the Palestinian Authority (PA), and in Nazareth, inside Israel, religious leaders and tourism officials have grand plans to renovate otherwise rundown towns to ring in 2,000 years since the birth of Jesus.
The Israeli tourism ministry's "Nazareth 2000" plan entails a $100-million facelift, including plans to renovate the Old City market, connect religious sites with scenic walkways, and repair some of the ancient streets where Jesus may have walked. And it will add some 2,400 hotel rooms to the current 600.
Nazareth is revered by Christians as the site of the annunciation - where the Bible says the angel Gabriel told Mary she would give birth to Jesus. But the town often disappoints pilgrims, who find a city in disrepair. Some 3.9 million visitors are expected in 2000.
Downtown Nazareth, whose roads have become a daily snarl of cars and buses, will be cleared out for pedestrian plazas.
Local officials say they're trying to restore the charm to Nazareth for pilgrims who are often disappointed to find the uglier side of modern life creeping in: streets dotted with electricity and telephone lines, roofs cluttered with refuse and antennas.
During this time of year, Israel also used to put money into Bethlehem, the town where Jesus was born.
But since it turned the town over to Palestinian self-rule last year, it's now PA President Yasser Arafat's job to decide how much will be spent. This year it was just $13,000.
Most of the decorations, including glittering tinsel and lights that dot Manger Square, are last year's leftovers - except for the little plastic Palestinian flags and pictures of Mr. Arafat.
Of more concern is how Bethlehem will put out its own welcome mat for the 3 million to 5 million tourists Mayor Freij expects to arrive in the year 2000. In Manger Square, places like the Christmas Tree restaurant and souvenir shops sell trinkets like olive wood nativity scenes and Last Supper carpets.
The Bethlehem municipality wants to take the heart of the square - currently used as a parking lot - and turn it into a stone piazza. Areas outside the square need even more repair work.
Mayor Freij says the 800 hotel rooms must be increased to 5,000. The work will entail a $200-million investment, Freij says. He is planning to start a Bethlehem Foundation to raise the cash.
"It's the duty of every Christian in the world, especially in Europe and America, to help us prepare for the year 2000," Freij says.
"We will not beg for it. If we don't get it, then we will celebrate Christmas in Bethlehem as it is, and it will be a shame for all the world," Freij says from his dim office, where an electricity shortage has put the lights out again. As the mayor speaks, his voice is almost drowned out as the muezzin from a nearby minaret begins to croon "Allahu Akbar."
Though Bethlehem is now a mostly Muslim town, residents respect its importance to Christianity and merchants fill their windows with holiday decor.
Politics, it is feared, could get in the way of pilgrims as they traipse the map of the Holy Land in the year 2000.
Usually, tourists have few problems getting through checkpoints that separate Israeli-controlled areas from Palestinian ones.
But during September's gun battles between Israeli soldiers and Palestinians police, tourists were barred for two weeks. The fighting left some areas of Bethlehem looking like a war zone.
Bethlehem officials also complain that the Israeli tourism industry sets up tours in which most pilgrims come in for a few hours and return to Jerusalem hotels. Instead, the Palestinians are trying to set up their own tour companies so they can compete for more tourist dollars.
Israeli Tourism Minister Moshe Katsav visited Freij last week to show his interest in joint projects for the year 2000.
But Freij isn't committing to anything. "This city needs an overhaul, renovation, cleaning, we need to increase water supply by three times," he says. "When I see what they are offering, maybe I'll say yes."
There is much to be done before tourists are likely to be impressed. "The Manger Square area looks all right," says Jack Walsh, a retired New York schoolteacher here for the Christmas holiday.
"But once you get past that," he says, rolling his eyes, "it needs some work."