The little town of Bethlehem is jammed with a big-city problem.
Traffic snarls streets everywhere, including around the church marking the spot where Jesus was born. And now, with Christmas upon it, Bethlehem is considering a dramatic solution to the problem – digging a tunnel under Manger Square.
The modern, densely populated town of 28,000 is a dizzying maze of small streets that practically guarantee traffic jams.
“Bethlehem is going through a crisis,” says 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.”
Bethlehem’s municipality now hopes eventually to build several tunnels around the Palestinian city, where the urban development problems are myriad.
Bethlehem is sandwiched on three sides by other towns. From the north and southeast, it is hemmed in by Israel’s separation barrier and Jewish settlements. It is also a main transit point for drivers between the northern and southern parts of the West Bank, compounding its congestion.
The area around the Nativity Church, built on the site where Christians believe Jesus was born, is particularly busy, with tourists swarming the area and cars squeezing through Manger Square. Streets all around face a constant backlog because of traffic in the square.
The plan proposes a 260ft-tunnel passing under a narrow two-lane street that crosses Manger Square in front of the Nativity Church. The project would take about two years to complete and would cost £2.5m to £3.2m, with the Palestinian Authority pledging to foot the bill. If the plan is approved, construction could start in autumn next year.
With the tunnel ensuring the flow of traffic, Manger Square would be closed to cars entirely under the plan and turned into a pedestrian expanse. But the tunnel project could run aground.
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 and would want to ensure its protection. Junaid Sorosh-Wali, an official at Unesco’s Ramallah office, said the agency would study the plan once approached by Palestinian officials.
Also, because the tunnel would pass near church grounds, church officials from each of the three denominations that administer the site would need to be involved. Officials at the Roman Catholic, Greek Orthodox and Armenian churches did not return messages requesting comment.
Mazen Karam is the director of the Bethlehem Development Foundation, a group that helped draft the tunnel study. For Mr Karam, the tunnel is part of a series of projects meant to spruce up Bethlehem.
“If Joseph and Mary came back to Bethlehem, they would be shocked,” he said. “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.”Reuse content