When people think of Bethlehem this Christmas they probably won't be thinking about a town torn by political strife, but Mayor Dean Stahle is asking people to remember such conditions in Bountiful's sister city and join in the city's efforts to improve life there.
"The interesting thing is, there is plenty of room at the inns this year," said Stahle who spoke by telephone with Bethlehem's Mayor Elias Freij this week.Freij told Stahle that traditional celebrations have been called off and the city's merchants will shut down on Christmas Eve because of tensions between Palestinian residents in his city and the Israelis. A yearlong Palestinian uprising including strikes and boycotts in the Israeli-occupied West Bank, where Bethlehem is located, and Gaza Strip has weakened Bethlehem's government and the financial condition of residents.
"The mayor told me he doesn't have enough money to pay city hall workers," Stahle said. "The strikes have hurt the Palestinians. A lot of the people in Bethlehem make a living from selling souvenirs to tourists."
Reuters reported that tourism in Israel has dropped 15 percent since 1987. The conditions have left many hotel rooms in Jerusalem and Bethlehem empty.
Conditions are not likely to improve in the coming year in Bethlehem, although Palestinian officials are optimistic about the opening of talks between the Palestine Liberation Organization and the United States, Stahle said.
Bountiful is the only known U.S. city that has a sister-city relationship with Bethlehem and one of the few that has a relationship with an Arab city.
After his contacts with Bethlehem's officials, Stahle is critical of Israeli policies with the Palestinians.
"The first thing they need to do is stop settling the West Bank," Stahle said. "The property belongs to the Palestinians."
Stahle said that Israelis have stifled democracy in Palestinian areas. "They need more elections. The Israelis should allow the Palestinians to start governing themselves," Stahle said.
Stahle has issued a plea for donations. He believes that the sister city relationship, started in 1983, can help change Bethlehem's quality of life. A visit earlier this year by Stahle and the South Davis Community Choir, which included giving donated books to Bethlehem's school children is only a beginning.
Stahle is raising funds to build a soccer field in Bethlehem, which has none. He also wants to start cultural education in local schools, have student exchanges and send teams of Bountiful doctors and dentists to provide much needed health care.
Donations for Bethlehem can be sent to the City of Bethlehem Fund, c/o Bountiful City, 790 S. First East, Bountiful, UT 84010.