‘The people of Bethlehem and the people of Palestine want real peace’

‘The people of Bethlehem and the people of Palestine want real peace’
Church leaders in Jerusalem and the Bethlehem city council took the decision last month to forego ‘any unnecessarily festive’ Christmas celebrations in solidarity with Gazans. (AFP)
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Updated 25 December 2023
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‘The people of Bethlehem and the people of Palestine want real peace’

‘The people of Bethlehem and the people of Palestine want real peace’
  • Attacks by Israel ‘a reminder of the massacre by Herod,’ Hanna Hanania says
  • But ‘people of our city and the people of Palestine want real peace,’ he says

AMMAN: The conflict in Gaza has cast a shadow over Bethlehem, the revered birthplace of Jesus. Its mayor, Hanna Hanania, spoke to Arab News about the detrimental impact the Israeli blockade has had on the city’s tourism industry, a vital economic lifeline.

“The harsh closure that Israel has placed on Bethlehem has cut off any possible tourists or pilgrims wanting to visit the city, but it also denied us the possibility of internal tourism,” he said.

In a mark of solidarity with the Palestinian people, Bethlehem’s city council will this year curtail its usual Christmas festivities.

“In keeping with the traditional status quo, we will still welcome the heads of the three churches as they make their annual Christmas visits to Bethlehem. Boy Scouts will still march but without music. No lighting of the Christmas tree or any other decorations will take place and Christmas Eve will be simply a religious ceremony,” Hanania said.

The mayor sees a parallel between the situation in Gaza and the ancient tragedies that befell Bethlehem.




Bethlehem mayor Hanna Hanania pointed to the disparities between Palestinians and the residents of the nearby illegal Jewish settlements. (Supplied)

“The attack on Gaza and the massacre of children is a reminder of the massacre by Herod of the children of Bethlehem when Jesus was born,” he said.

“Bethlehem was the recipient of the message of peace 2,000 years ago and this is the message we want to proclaim. The people of our city and the people of Palestine want real peace.”

In a recent meeting with the British ambassador, Hanania voiced his displeasure at the envoy’s repetition of the Israeli narrative, stressing the deep-rooted issues faced by Palestinians.

“Our problems did not start on Oct. 7, but we have been suffering discrimination and attempts at usurping our land and our rights ever since Balfour made his infamous promise to allow Jews to steal our land.”

During the meeting, Hanania highlighted the disparities between Palestinians and the residents of the nearby illegal Jewish settlements. He pointed to the inequitable distribution of resources, particularly water, where settlers receive twice as much water from the Bethlehem aquifer.

“They receive 150 liters per capita per day, we receive 65 liters per capita per day even though the water comes from Bethlehem aquifer,” he said.

Since Oct. 7, the city had grappled with inflated prices and limited access to fresh produce due to the blockade, he said.

Environmental concerns had also escalated due to restricted access to waste disposal facilities in Hebron, compelling the use of a temporary, less safe dump in Beit Sahour.

Last year’s municipal elections were a watershed moment for Hanania’s mayoral journey.

“The 2022 municipal elections in Bethlehem were very problematic,” he said. “Eleven lists participated, but although we won the most, five seats, and I was the top vote-getter, it was hard to make a coalition, as everyone wanted to be mayor.”

A senior Palestinian official’s intervention led to a rotational agreement, under which Hanania’s term will end on Jan. 8.

His tenure has been marked by strategic initiatives aimed at enhancing Bethlehem’s financial and cultural landscape. He successfully lobbied for the city to be part of a pilot project allowing it to directly collect housing taxes, thereby addressing the critical issue of cash flow delays from the Palestinian Authority.

Hanania has also spearheaded significant tourism projects, including the renovation of the Bethlehem Museum near the Church of the Nativity, has been an advocate for cultural preservation and has worked to enhance the city’s appeal as a center for religious and historical tourism.

He has been instrumental in promoting Bethlehem’s heritage, advocating for the preservation of its historical sites and traditions, which are integral to its identity and tourism appeal.

This initiative, combined with a mandatory museum tour for church visitors, promised to ease congestion and generate significant revenue. The development of a walking tour along the historic Star Street, a UNESCO World Heritage site, and the implementation of a tourist tax, were also part of these efforts.

“The museum was scheduled to have a religious narrative, a national narrative and a cultural narrative of the city of Bethlehem,” he said.

“Tourists would have to pay a small fee of $5, this would bring about $10 million to the city’s coffers because we normally have an average of 2 million visitors (a year) to the Church of the Nativity.

“The museum tour would help reduce the heavy traffic at the church and would provide shelter for the tourists from the rain or the hot summer until their turn to visit the birthplace of Jesus.”

While the Gaza conflict has stalled many of Hanania’s plans, he remains optimistic about their long-term benefits. He draws inspiration from an Arabic proverb about sowing seeds for future harvest, hopeful that his efforts will yield positive outcomes for Bethlehem and its people.

As his mayoral term draws to a close, he said he envisioned a future in which Bethlehem could thrive as a beacon of culture, history and peace, drawing visitors from around the world to its sacred sites.


Iran president-elect says ready for ‘constructive dialogue’ with EU

Iran president-elect says ready for ‘constructive dialogue’ with EU
Updated 13 July 2024
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Iran president-elect says ready for ‘constructive dialogue’ with EU

Iran president-elect says ready for ‘constructive dialogue’ with EU

Tehran: Iran’s president-elect Masoud Pezeshkian said he looks forward to improved relations with European nations, even though he accused them of reneging on commitments to mitigate the impact of US sanctions.
Pezeshkian on July 6 won a runoff election against ultraconservative Saeed Jalili.
The 69-year-old has called for “constructive relations” with Western countries to “get Iran out of its isolation,” and favors reviving the 2015 nuclear deal between Iran and global powers.
Washington unilaterally withdrew from the accord in 2018, reimposing sanctions and leading Iran to gradually reduce commitment to its terms. The deal aimed to curb nuclear activity which Tehran maintains is for peaceful purposes.
Writing late Friday in the English-language Tehran Times newspaper, Pezeshkian said that after the US withdrawal from the 2015 deal, European countries committed to try to salvage it and mitigate the impact of US sanctions.
“European countries have reneged on all these commitments,” Pezeshkian wrote.
“Despite these missteps, I look forward to engaging in constructive dialogue with European countries to set our relations on the right path, based on principles of mutual respect and equal footing.”
European Union spokeswoman Nabila Massrali had earlier congratulated Pezeshkian on his election, adding that the 27-member bloc is “ready to engage with the new government in line with EU policy of critical engagement.”
Pezeshkian is a heart surgeon whose only previous government experience was as health minister about two decades ago.
The death of ultraconservative president Ebrahim Raisi in a helicopter crash necessitated the election, which was not due until 2025.
Pezeshkian is considered a “reformist” in Iran, and was the only candidate from that camp allowed to stand in the election, for which all contenders were approved by Iran’s Guardian Council.
Iran’s supreme leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei has the final say on all major policy issues in the country.
Under the hard-won 2015 deal Iran agreed to freeze its nuclear program in return for the lifting of the crippling international sanctions.
After the US withdrawal and reimposition of sanctions, Iran gradually began reneging on its own commitments to the agreement.
The parties to the 2015 deal with Iran saw it as the best way to stop the Islamic republic from building a nuclear bomb — a goal Tehran has always denied.
European Union members France and Germany were also party to the deal, along with Britain, China and Russia.
The European nations tried to salvage it, but Iran accused them of perceived inaction.


As bombs shatter Gaza, boxing coach emboldens girls

As bombs shatter Gaza, boxing coach emboldens girls
Updated 13 July 2024
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As bombs shatter Gaza, boxing coach emboldens girls

As bombs shatter Gaza, boxing coach emboldens girls
  • The boxing club where girls once learned to jab, build their stamina, and make friends has been demolished
  • There are no protective equipment in the open-air sandy space between tents where displaced girls now practice

GAZA: Israel’s offensive in Gaza has pulverized most of its sports facilities and equipment, but that has not stopped boxing coach Osama Ayoub from training Palestinian girls in a tent camp that offers no protection from airstrikes or shelling.
The boxing club where girls once learned to jab, build their stamina, and make friends has been demolished.
There are no protective equipment, ring, or punch bags in the open-air sandy space between the tents where displaced girls now practice — a mattress and pillow will have to do — but Ayoub says the training has helped them overcome their fear of war.
“They started going out on the street. They started going out at night. Their personalities became much stronger, and even their families saw they were stronger,” he said.
It’s all about improvization. One young girl unleashes barehanded punches and weaves left and right to dodge imaginary fists. “Throw a right,” yells the coach, who puts up his fists for the girls to punch.
“They have determination, they have contentment, they have courage. At first, they were afraid of the war we are living in, but through boxing, they have benefited a lot,” he said.
Gaza offered playgrounds, football, tennis, karate, and other sports before terrifying bombs began dropping from the skies, flattening entire neighborhoods.
Attempts to restart sports are risky, even when played outside. On Tuesday, an Israeli missile slammed into a football match at a tent encampment, killing at least 29 people, Palestinian officials said.
Yet the boxers dream of international competitions overseas worlds away from Gaza. This tiny, densely populated enclave suffered from poverty and high unemployment even long before Hamas triggered the war on Oct. 7.
“I hope that this war will end and that our message will reach everyone in the name of the girls of Gaza,” said one of the boxers, Bilsan Ayoub.
The chances of that happening soon are slim. Months of mediation by the US, Egypt, and Qatar have failed to secure a truce between Israel and its arch-enemy Hamas, never mind a permanent ceasefire.
So, all the boxers can do is keep practicing as each side demands concessions from the other, and the conflict rages.
“We do not have anything left, being displaced. We do not have clips, gloves, teeth protection, said Ayoub, who has to improvise daily to keep her dream of international competition alive.
“The tools are very simple, but we want to continue in this game until we achieve our dream and end the war,” she said.


UN chief urges funds for Palestinians, saying Israel is forcing Gazans 'to move like human pinballs'

UN chief urges funds for Palestinians, saying Israel is forcing Gazans 'to move like human pinballs'
Updated 13 July 2024
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UN chief urges funds for Palestinians, saying Israel is forcing Gazans 'to move like human pinballs'

UN chief urges funds for Palestinians, saying Israel is forcing Gazans 'to move like human pinballs'
  • UN chief Antonio Guterres earlier pleaded for help from donors to fund the embattled agency, warning that Palestinians would lose a “critical lifeline” without UNRWA

GENEVA: The United Nations chief appealed for funding Friday for the beleaguered UN agency helping Palestinian refugees in Gaza and elsewhere in the Middle East, accusing Israel of issuing evacuation orders that force Palestinians “to move like human pinballs across a landscape of destruction and death.”

Secretary-General Antonio Guterres told a donor’s conference that the agency, known as UNRWA, faces “a profound funding gap.” The head of the UN agency for Palestinian refugees said it had enough funds to continue operating through September, following a pledging conference for the embattled body where UN chief Antonio Guterres pleaded for help from donors.
“We have worked tirelessly with partners to restore confidence in the agency,” UNRWA chief Philippe Lazzarini said, after several nations withheld funding following Israeli allegations in January that a number of UNRWA’s employees participated in the October 7 attack by Hamas.
Lazzarini said new pledges of funds would help ensure emergency operations until September.
Guterres had pleaded with donors to fund the embattled UN agency, warning that Palestinians would lose a “critical lifeline” without UNRWA. Without financial support to UNRWA, Guterres said “Palestinian refugees will lose a critical lifeline and the last ray of hope for a better future.”
“Let me be clear — there is no alternative to UNRWA,” he said.
“Just when we thought it couldn’t get any worse in Gaza — somehow, appallingly, civilians are being pushed into ever deeper circles of hell,” Guterres added.
According to Guterres, 195 UNRWA staff members have been killed in the war, the highest death toll for staff in UN history.
The US Congress has barred further funding for UNRWA. President Joe Biden’s administration has instead directed funding for Palestinian civilians to other bodies while saying that UNRWA is uniquely equipped to distribute aid.
The war started with Hamas’s October attack on southern Israel, which resulted in the deaths of 1,195 people, mostly civilians, according to an AFP tally based on Israeli figures.
Israel responded with a military offensive that has killed at least 38,345 people in Gaza, also mostly civilians, according to the health ministry in Hamas-ruled Gaza.


Argentina designates Hamas a terrorist group in show of support for Israel

Argentina designates Hamas a terrorist group in show of support for Israel
Updated 13 July 2024
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Argentina designates Hamas a terrorist group in show of support for Israel

Argentina designates Hamas a terrorist group in show of support for Israel
  • The US, European Union and several other countries long put a terrorist designation on Hamas, which ruled the Gaza Strip before its current war with Israel
  • Israel has killed more than 38,000 Palestinians, displaced over 80 percent of the territory’s people and triggered a humanitarian disaster

BUENOS AIRES, Argentina: Argentina designated Hamas a terrorist organization Friday and ordered a freeze on the financial assets of the Palestinian group, a largely symbolic move as President Javier Milei seeks to align Argentina strongly with the US and Israel.
Announcing the decision, Milei’s office cited the militant Palestinian group’s cross-border attack on Israel last Oct. 7 that killed some 1,200 people and took 250 others hostage, in the deadliest assault in Israel’s 76-year history.
The statement also mentioned Hamas’ close ties to Iran, which Argentina blames for two deadly militant attacks on Jewish sites in the country.
The move comes just days before the 30th anniversary of one of those attacks, the 1994 bombing of a Jewish community center in Buenos Aires. It killed 85 people and wounded hundreds more in the worst such attack in Argentina’s modern history.
The other attack on the Israeli Embassy in Buenos Aires, in 1992, killed more than 20 people. Argentina’s judiciary has accused members of Lebanon’s Iran-backed Hezbollah militant group of carrying out the two attacks.
Friday’s announcement professed Milei’s “unwavering commitment to recognizing terrorists for what they are,” adding that “it’s the first time that there is a political will to do so.”
The US, European Union and several other countries long put a terrorist designation on Hamas, which ruled the Gaza Strip before its current war with Israel.
Previous left-leaning Peronist governments in Argentina, home to the largest Jewish community in Latin America, have maintained friendly ties with Israel but also voiced support for Palestinian statehood.
Since coming into office in December, Milei has set himself apart from even Israel’s closest allies in his vocal support for Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. A huge swell in global pressure has left Israel deeply isolated over its military campaign in Gaza, which has killed more than 38,000 Palestinians, displaced over 80 percent of the territory’s people and triggered a humanitarian disaster.
“Argentina must once again align itself with Western civilization,” Milei’s office said Friday.
For his first state visit as president earlier this year, Milei flew to Jerusalem in a show of support for the Israeli government and promised to move his nation’s embassy to the contested capital — drawing praise from Netanyahu and ire from Hamas.
Although raised a Roman Catholic, Milei says he has a deep spiritual connection with Judaism.

 


Iran’s Pezeshkian rejects US pressure, praises Russia, China

Iran’s Pezeshkian rejects US pressure, praises Russia, China
Updated 13 July 2024
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Iran’s Pezeshkian rejects US pressure, praises Russia, China

Iran’s Pezeshkian rejects US pressure, praises Russia, China
  • Pezeshkian, a 69-year-old heart surgeon, has pledged to promote a pragmatic foreign policy, ease tensions over now-stalled negotiations with major powers to revive a 2015 nuclear pact and improve prospects for social liberalization and political pluralism

DUBAI: The United States should realize that Iran will not respond to pressure, President-elect Masoud Pezeshkian said in a statement published on Saturday, in which he also highlighted his country’s friendship with China and Russia.
Pezeshkian, a relative moderate who beat a hard-line rival in elections, also reiterated that Iran does not seek nuclear weapons, adding that Tehran would expand ties with neighbors and engage with Europe.
“The United States...needs to recognize the reality and understand, once and for all, that Iran does not — and will not — respond to pressure (and) that Iran’s defense doctrine does not include nuclear weapons,” Pezeshkian said in the statement, titled “My message to the new world” and published in the daily Tehran Times.
Pezeshkian, a 69-year-old heart surgeon, has pledged to promote a pragmatic foreign policy, ease tensions over now-stalled negotiations with major powers to revive a 2015 nuclear pact and improve prospects for social liberalization and political pluralism.
However many Iranians are skeptical about his ability to fulfil his campaign promises as Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, not the president, is the ultimate authority in the Islamic Republic.
“China and Russia have consistently stood by us during challenging times. We deeply value this friendship.
“Russia is a valued strategic ally and neighbor to Iran and my administration will remain committed to expanding and enhancing our cooperation,” Pezeshkian said, adding that Tehran would actively support initiatives aimed at ending the conflict in Ukraine.
“The Iranian people have entrusted me with a strong mandate to vigorously pursue constructive engagement on the international stage while insisting on our rights, our dignity and our deserved role in the region and the world.
“I extend an open invitation to those willing to join us in this historic endeavour,” Pezeshkian said. (