“We are living in a prison”

Posted on 26 August 2010

First published in Labour Briefing, September 2010
Georgina Reeves asks the mayor of Bethlehem about the impact of the Israeli settlements and the way towards a peaceful settlement

Dr Victor Batarseh was elected mayor of Bethlehem in 2005 and took control of a local council in debt to the tune of 4.5 million NIS (Israeli New Shekel). This was just the beginning of his problems in municipal office.

Dr Batarseh represents the Bethlehem Brotherhood and Development bloc, a group of local politicians from different political backgrounds. The municipality, which depended to a great extent on international donors, was boycotted overnight by governments and aid agencies alike, due to the political affiliations of the council members. The Palestinian Authority (PA) also joined the boycott, although the PA does now provide limited funding for the district. Other municipalities, those controlled by Fateh, do not have difficulty accessing funds.

Despite the problems, Dr Batarseh shows some optimism. Tourism, Bethlehem’s main source of income and job creation, has seen a remarkable revival since 2007. He says, “In 2006 there were no tourists, but in 2007, they started to return. This year has been the best yet and we are seeing 80-100,000 visitors every month now.” He went on to explain the value of these visits. “They come here and they visit our restaurants, they stay in our hotels. We currently have around 5,000 beds but I believe we need between 10- 15,000.” This welcome return of pilgrims and tourists is reflected in the drop in unemployment in the district. Although still very high at around 20%, it’s a considerable improvement on the 28.5% from a few years ago.

The improvement in tourism is a boost for the local economy, but it is not without difficulties. “Although tourism is flourishing, the obstruction from the Israeli-controlled Bethlehem checkpoint is a real problem. Visitors sometimes have to wait hours to get through.” Dr Batarseh is also clear whom Bethlehem has to thank, in the main, for the increase in visitors to the area. “It’s the actions of the various churches worldwide, encouraging people to come here as an act of solidarity. Although the increased tourism certainly helps create a more stable economy, most tourists still stay in Israel and come into Bethlehem on day trips.

Unfortunately, there is very little else to be optimistic about. Bethlehem district, including its arable lands, once measured 31 square kilometres. Today it’s just 5.7 square kilometres. Bethlehem is being swallowed up by settlements, land confiscation and the continued construction of Israel’s so-called “security wall”. This barrier separates Palestinians from their land and from each other and cedes more territory to Israeli control.

Bethlehem is currently surrounded by 18 settlements which house over 87,000 settlers, and still construction continues. There are many implications of the growth of settlements and the construction of the wall. Dr Bataresh is, by profession, a surgeon, so health care is of particular importance to him. He explained: “The wall and the checkpoints have a bad effect on health for the people here. We have no specialised centres of care in the district, so if someone has a stroke, for example, they need to be transferred to Jerusalem. The ambulance is stopped at the checkpoint and the patient has to be carried by stretcher to an ambulance waiting the other side. And of course, the patient must have the right permit.”

Permits are another aspect of the system of control imposed on Palestinians by Israel. Bethlehem lies just a few kilometres south of Jerusalem, and many Palestinians used to work, socialise and worship there. The percentage of permits now issued is 10-15% of pre-Intifada times. The permits do not just control access to work but also impede religious freedom. Bethlehem comprises both Christians and Muslims, but it is almost impossible for either group to reach their holy places in Jerusalem. Dr Batarseh explains it simply: “We are living in a prison, we have no freedoms, and certainly no freedom of religious practice. Daily life is controlled by Israel in every way.”

The municipality has attempted to improve the local economy by bringing in investment and opportunities outside of tourism. Dr Batarseh wrote a direct appeal to President Sarkozy of France, who responded positively. Launched in June 2008, the French-funded Bethlehem Multidisciplinary Industrial Park is currently under construction. Despite the local initiative behind the project, the municipality has since been pushed out by private companies, both Palestinian and international. Dr Batarseh has been promised that the council will receive around 10% of profits from the park, but so far this has not been formally agreed. At least, he says, he hopes around 700 jobs will be created for the district.

Earlier this year, Bethlehem hosted the Bethlehem Investment Conference. Information from its website shows two of the largest supporters are USAID and UKAID. Asked if this heralds a new economic era, Dr Batarseh explained that the conference brought in money in the short term, mainly from the delegates spending locally, but it is unlikely to live up to expectations. Economic development is clearly hampered by the political situation.

The wider political scene is also troubling. Dr Batarseh does not see any possibility of a two state solution. “You cannot have settlements and a Palestinian state,” he says. “There are around 517,000 settlers, so there is no land for a state.” He sees a single democratic, secular state as is the only realistic solution now. Whereas he believes it is vital that the state is not defined by any religious character, he also believes Israel is not ready or willing to accept this.

Dr Batarseh is adamant about how a resolution to the conflict can be achieved: boycott and sanctions. “While the actions of NGOs, institutions and people around the world are important, it is only through the pressure of governments that this can be achieved. This is the only way to move Israel to make peace and implement UN resolutions. Like South Africa, there must be a comprehensive boycott and sanctions against Israel.”

Responses are closed for this post.

Bookmark and Share


Recent Posts

Tag Cloud

1948 activism ahdaf ameer makhoul BDS beit jala Bethlehem budrus checkpoint community deheishe economy gaza Ghassan Kanafani home illegal occupation Intifada Iran Israel juliano mer hamis Lebanon Leila Khaled nakba negotiations PA Palestine palestine papers palestinian PFLP popular struggle prisoners rap refugees resistance revolution Sam Bahour Settlements society students tunnels wadi fukin wall war Water west bank

Copyright © Georgina Reeves