BETHLEHEM: Bethlehem Mayor Anton Salman said keeping hope alive was his biggest challenge.
Talking to Arab News during an exclusive interview, he expressed his wish to bring thousands of disapora Bethlehemites back to the city, but acknowledged his inability to do so “because there’s no land due to Israeli settlements.”
Following are excerpts from the interview:
Q. What is your biggest challenge as mayor of a city surrounded by walls and settlements?
A. Keeping hope alive. We do so not only as a matter of carrying the message of Christmas, but also through our daily work: Building institutions and capacity for our people is a strong form of resistance against the occupation.
In practical terms, I’d like to bring back thousands of Bethlehemites from the diaspora, but I can’t do that because there’s no land due to Israeli settlements, and because the Israelis control the population registry and many people have lost their IDs. Whether by taking land or residency rights, Israel doesn’t want us here. We tell Israel that no matter what, we’ll remain.
Q. What is the biggest obstacle for tourism in Bethlehem?
A. Israel’s monopoly over tourism, but we also have a responsibility in terms of doing more advocacy and promotion. Israel has even tried to prevent tourists from sleeping over in Bethlehem, but we’ve succeeded in bringing more people. What’s important though is not the number of visitors as much as the number of people who stay in the city. Our goal for 2019 is to increase the number of people staying in the city.
Q. Are you interested in Arab tourists? What would you like to see in terms of tourism from Arab and Muslim countries?
A. Bethlehem is the Capital of Arab Culture 2020. We’d love to have thousands of people form Egypt, Jordan, Syria, Iraq and Lebanon here. Unfortunately, this isn’t possible today due to the occupation, and we know we’re losing a lot from it. We lose our potential, but our Arab sisters and brothers should know that we’ll always be waiting for them.
Has the increase in tourism accommodation improved long-term economic conditions, or is it only short-term improvements?
It’s too early to make any conclusions about this, but we can’t take Bethlehem outside the context of the economic crisis that we have in Palestine in general. In any case, we’ll keep working to improve the situation, and to make our residents feel the increase in the number of visitors in their daily lives.
Q. What do you want from the international community?
A. More deeds and less statements. It needs to hold Israel accountable for violating international law. How can a Western government claim to care about the situation of Christians in the Middle East while doing nothing about the oppression we have in Bethlehem? How come separating Bethlehem from Jerusalem with an illegal wall has been normalized by the international community? We need it to uphold its legal and moral responsibilities. That’s all we’re asking for.
Q. What are the issues on which you would like to see the Palestinian Authority (PA) doing more?
A. We have a direct relationship with the PA, and we raise our issues with it. We’d like it to better promote the potential of our city.