Christmas message from a besieged Bethlehem
As we celebrate the birth of Christ we need to remember the message of the angels wishing people peace and goodwill. Yet in the very place of the miraculous virgin birth, injustice prevails for the people of Palestine.
In recent months some have claimed that Israel’s annexation of occupied Palestinian territory was stopped as a result of the normalization agreements with some Arab countries. But the reality on the ground is that nothing has changed.
A few weeks ago, as Mayor of Bethlehem, I sent a letter to all diplomatic missions in Palestine asking them to take urgent measures to stop the construction of 1,400 housing units in the illegal Giv’at HaMatos settlement. By approving these homes Israel is attempting to connect settlements north of Bethlehem, ending any territorial contiguity with Jerusalem; in other words, the perpetual strangulation of Bethlehem and the end of any possibility of contiguity in an independent Palestinian state.
The Palestinian government exercises only limited control over 13 percent of our territory; the rest remains off limits for Palestinian development, while serving as a reservoir for the continuing expansion of Israel’s illegal colonialist enterprise. How could anyone claim that this is not tantamount to annexation? A city that represents a universal message of hope and peace has been turned into a symbol of apartheid.
Such developments are taking place as our city goes through a deep economic crisis. To the annual costs of the Israeli occupation, which denies the sovereign access to natural resources and international borders that are among the basic components of any economy, we have to add the end of tourism, whether foreign or local, brought about by the COVID-19 pandemic.
The annexation of most of Bethlehem’s land was certainly part of the so-called “Vision of Peace” presented by the Trump administration, which represented nothing other than the perpetuation of the current reality of denial of Palestinian rights. The election of Joe Biden is certainly being seen as an opportunity for many in the international community. When it comes to Palestine, it is urgent that this new administration take concrete measures to reverse the damage caused by the current one. This includes declaring that the Trump plan is off the table.
The Palestinian government exercises only limited control over 13 percent of our territory; the rest remains off limits for Palestinian development, while serving as a reservoir for the continuing expansion of Israel’s illegal colonialist enterprise
The US should learn from experience. In 1997, when Benjamin Netanyahu authorized construction of the illegal settlement of Har Homa (Jabal Abu Ghneim) on expropriated Bethlehem land, Washington strongly condemned the settlement but twice vetoed UN Security Council resolutions on the issue. The result of this ambivalence is that today this illegal settlement has a population of more than 25,000, and it keeps growing. Washington shouldn’t let GIv’at HaMatos become its new Har Homa.
Bethlehem is a city with tremendous potential. This year we were supposed to be the Arab Capital of Culture, with events including the re-inauguration of the historic Star Street after its restoration. The street is part of the UNESCO World Heritage Site that includes the Church of the Nativity, which has also been undergoing a meticulous project of restoration, with great results. If we can achieve this under the current circumstances, what do you imagine Bethlehem could be if it had free access to the rest of the world? If it recovered the land that has been taken for Israeli settlements? If it could make use of its water resources? If it could simply be reunited with Jerusalem, as it was for thousands of years?
Bethlehem represents a message of hope and resilience that we are proud to present to the world. There are no shortcuts, though, to a prosperous future: The path goes through the end of Israel’s illegal colonization of our land. The Israeli occupation, its continuing process of annexation and COVID-19 have deeply affected our city. But we are aware of the responsibility placed upon our shoulders as the guardians of a cultural heritage that is not going to disappear.
Christmas, our city’s soul, is both a Christian religious occasion and a Palestinian national celebration, so we shall continue moving forward, hoping and working for a better future of freedom, justice, and peace.
• Anton Salman is a lawyer, and Mayor of Bethlehem