Critics say Israel is unprepared for millennium hoopla

JERUSALEM — When Fonville Winans packed a small bottle of Salvation Hot Sauce in his bags while preparing for a trip to the Holy Land earlier this month, he had no idea it would label him as a security threat upon checking into El Al at the Newark, N.J., airport.

Perhaps the alert was triggered by the condiment's depiction of a preacher baptizing a voluptuous woman or the slogan on the bottle — "one taste of this and you get saved."

Maybe it was because Winans, a 28-year-old Christian painter and photographer from Baton Rouge, La., had his luggage transferred directly from his connecting flight and was checking in with just a carry-on bag and one-way ticket.

Whatever the reason, Winans had been to Israel three times before and was familiar with security protocol. But nothing prepared him for the two-hour grilling that ended with Israeli security personnel confiscating five cans of coffee, a tape recorder, calculator, a Hebrew-English electronic translator — and the hot sauce.

"I have been to Israel before," Winans said. "But this time it was different. They wanted to know my beliefs. The fact that as a believer I cannot come and see the places Jesus came from without a hassle really made me feel violated."

After months of media hype about the threats Israel may face from fringe doomsday millennialist cults, it is no surprise that Israel has beefed up security ahead of Christmas and New Year's Day. Israeli officials say such security is a necessity and it is better to be safe than sorry.

However, if even a fraction of the more than 2 million Christian tourists expected during the millennial year are scrutinized like Winans, they may return home with tainted impressions of Israel. And security is just one issue on a long list of millennium-related matters that may cost Israel a huge amount of potential good will from pilgrims.

Even without an interrogation, entering the Jewish state is not always easy. The 24 counters at passport control at Ben-Gurion International Airport are increasingly overwhelmed by growing numbers of tourists. At peak hours, the wait can take more than 90 minutes.

Although the government will soon add another 10 counters, the airport remains a symbol of Israel's unpreparedness for the millennium rush.

Just outside the airport, cranes and bulldozers are working furiously to build a new complex known as Ben-Gurion 2000. The plan was to have a modern airport in place for the millennium. Instead, critics say, the project should be renamed Ben-Gurion 2002 because that is when it will probably be ready.

Even some government officials admit that the late arrival of the airport is symptomatic of a larger failure to prepare for the year 2000.

Yossi Noy is director general of Administration 2000, the government authority coordinating $100 million of preparatory investments for millennial tourism. In his eyes, the problem is bureaucracy.

The third director of an office established in 1998, Noy came on the job in September. His two predecessors quit after realizing they could not get anything done through rivaling government ministries.

"I came in time to get some things done but there is not enough time to do everything necessary, such as heavy works which should have been done two or three years ago," Noy said. "We are still trying to do the best for the tourists and make their stay in Israel more comfortable."

Most of the focus now is on building additional toilets and parking facilities at poorly equipped holy sites. Yet the biggest challenge will be traffic, and it is too late to start building and expanding roads as pilgrims start to arrive in ever-increasing numbers.

According to Israel's Central Bureau of Statistics, 196,100 tourists arrived by air in October, a 23 percent jump compared to the same month last year. Total arrivals for the month — through all sources of transportation — reached 282,200, a record turnout for October.

In Nazareth, where a dispute between local Muslims and Christians has cast a shadow over the anticipated tourism boom, the narrow streets leading to the main sites are becoming even more congested as busloads of pilgrims descend upon the city.

The same is happening in Jerusalem, especially around the Old City, where the recent increase in tourism has already given traffic cops a taste of millennial traffic jams.

The sheer number of tourists at the sites themselves also poses a problem. Some sites reported a 35 percent increase in the number of visitors last month and are making special arrangements for masses of tourists.

But the Church of the Holy Sepulcher, one of the holiest sites, will be a particular problem. For five years Israel has been begging the three patriarchs from different denominations who control the site to open an exit door that could double the capacity. Without it, the church will be unable to cope with huge numbers of pilgrims, especially on holidays, when the church will become a fire hazard.

Millennium watchers also shudder at the tight security measures expected if Pope John Paul II visits the Holy Land as planned in March.

"I spoke to a friend of mine in the Israeli Foreign Ministry and he thought the city would have to be evacuated," said the Rev. Michael McGarry, Catholic rector of the Tantur Ecumenical Institute for Theological Studies straddling Jerusalem and Bethlehem.

In addition, Israel's lack of preparation may have political ramifications. Most Christian tourists will visit must-see sites in Jerusalem and in Palestinian-controlled Bethlehem, where Yasser Arafat has gone out of his way to create a festive atmosphere.

"I hope that they can go away saying to themselves that Israel is a place they want to come back to," said the Rev. Charles Kopp, director of United Christian Council in Israel, an umbrella group. "But I would think they would make at least something in Jerusalem to give the people coming for the millennium a sense that there is something special. You don't get that feeling anywhere in Jerusalem.

"I know in Bethlehem they are going to pull out the stops and it will definitely play into the tourists' experience," Kopp said. "Arafat will get involved in the Nazareth issue and try and paint himself as defender of Christian rights. I don't trust him for a minute, but tourists will come away with their impressions."

Part of the problem lies with the Orthodox Chief Rabbinate. On one hand, the rabbinate has made an exception and allowed Christian groups to hold a celebration on Christmas Eve tonight at the Binyanei Haooma convention center.

However, it has set tough restrictions on hotels catering to Christian tourists. Hotels have been asked to maintain a "Jewish atmosphere" in public areas during the holiday, meaning no Christmas trees in lobbies or New Year's parties with music on Friday night, Dec. 31. The restrictions are part of an agreement between hotels and the rabbinate, which could in theory rescind kashrut licenses to non-compliant hotels.

Despite these challenges, Israeli officials remain upbeat.

"We will make every effort to make sure that Christian tourists and tourists in general feel welcome," said Moshe Fogel, a government spokesman. "The experience in Jerusalem, Nazareth and around the Sea of Galilee has proved to be a very powerful experience in the past. This goes on every year and there are tourists who come back many times over.

"As to the outer trappings such as Christmas trees, the millennium is not a national holiday in Israel," he added. "The religious aspects are being celebrated by the churches, and in that context the government has provided assistance to them."