Transcript of Mayor of Bethlehem’s speech to Australian Union Aid Abroad – APHEDA tour group
Mayor of Bethlehem Dr Vic Batarseh
Recorded by Cathy Peters, January 2012, Bethlehem, Occupied Palestine
About two months ago we received [1, 2], I should say one month ago, we received about $10,000 as help to continue constructing many football [playgrounds] for the children of Bethlehem and we are promised maybe another $10,000 that will help us to go on with this complete constructing this football playground for the children in Bethlehem. You are most welcome to the city of Bethlehem and you are most welcome to the Palestinian National Authority. I hope you’ll enjoy your time and I hope you will see for your own selves, see, hear, ask and get answers for the real position and how we live as Palestinians under occupation and what are the obstacles and how you can help the Palestinian people to be released from this occupation from this wall of separation.
As you see we have entered Bethlehem. This checkpoint from where you entered you see actually is not the main historical entrance of Bethlehem. The main northern historical entrance of Bethlehem was just a few about 100 metres from where you entered but has been closed by the Israeli authorities by this wall of separation and there is an iron door that is opened only during Christmas time and for the passage of President or the Prime Minister and so on. So the main entrance to Bethlehem has been closed completely. This wall has affected, if you remember when I was in Sydney in Marrickville [Channel 9 News 31/8/07, SMH 20/6/07, Marrickville Council].
The media used to say that it is not a wall and there was Good morning it’s like Good Morning America Good Morning that lady does it in Sydney on the TV – Kerrie Ann – so I had a good photo of this wall you see just behind me, I told them this is the wall that they say is not a cement wall and so it was I mean and now we have seen that it is a cement wall and sometimes they say barbed wire, that’s what they used to say the media there. So this wall really surrounds the city of Bethlehem [See Anastas home], that made Bethlehem City a big prison for its citizens. Bethlehem used to be 31 square kilometres in diameter now due to the building of 22 Israeli settlements with 87,000 settlers living in these settlements due to the building of this wall that snakes into the city of Bethlehem between the houses of Bethlehem. Bethlehem is now only 5.7 square kilometres from 31 to 5.7. All our agricultural land has been confiscated to build these 22 settlements and this wall. Just 4-6 weeks ago, they confiscated 7,000 rows of olive trees that were that contains all of the olive trees 7,000 rows just behind the wall that belongs to 180 families from Bethlehem it has been confiscated and now it is they call it within the boundaries of Jerusalem.
So you see all our agricultural land has been confiscated now, there’s no more and this was one of the main sources of income really agricultural land. The second source of income is employment in Jerusalem. This has gone down to 10-15% of the normal because any citizen who wants to go to Jerusalem should get a special permit from the Israeli authorities and this is very hard to get so only about 15% of the normal number of employees who used to go to work in Jerusalem get this permit, this is the second main source of income.
Now the third source of income is really pilgrimage and tourism. Until the year 2005 …………… was almost nil but since the year 2006 things have been getting better and better every year, there are more tourists coming in, we have more tourists who are sleeping in our hotels, this is the main thing. Those who sleep in our hotels, eat in our restaurants because this give us back and improves the economy of Bethlehem City. Unemployment rate was before 2005 about 30%, now its due to the increase of this pilgrimage and tourists sleeping in our hotels has gone down to 18% but it is still the highest unemployment rate in the Palestinian National Authority and the West Bank. Bethlehem has the highest unemployment rate in the West Bank and families in Gaza have highest unemployment rate in Gaza city.
We are preparing to build more hotels so that more tourists will sleep in our hotels so that we get the benefit from these pilgrims and tourists. Actually now last year we had about 1.5 million during the year coming in but a small number sleeps in Bethlehem. We had about 5,000 sleeping beds and we have around 10 or 11 hotels that are being built newly. This will go up to 10,000 sleeping beds. What we need is 15,000 sleeping beds really to get the benefit of the tourists. Tourism and Israel gets the most of the benefit from these tourists about 92%, we get about 5-8% of benefit of this number of tourists coming in only. Well there’s a hindrance to tourism due to this checkpoint, you know coming in is not very difficult but going out of Bethlehem if they sleep over you have a queue usually of tourist buses about that sometimes have to queue for about 1 hour to get out of the city and this is bad from the travel agents you see because in this way it will take more time for them to go around you see.
Many of them get packages, if they’re not sleeping over, they get the packages from their Israeli hotels where they live and even get the drinks with them you see. The water is so we don’t get anything we out of these tourists.
Now this wall not only affects the colouring of the city, it’s the wall and the occupation. We do not have any freedom of mobility either persons or for trade you see. And this has a very bad effect on the citizens of Bethlehem. This has a bad effect on the health of the citizens of Bethlehem too because we don’t have specialised cardiac centres and neurological centres in Bethlehem. We all have to go to Jerusalem for this or to Oman or Israel and you cannot leave here unless you get this permit from the Israeli authorities even an ambulance carrying a case of my father ………………………with cerebral palsy in a Palestinian ambulance – this ambulance has to stop at the checkpoint, they have to carry this patient on a stretcher to an Israeli ambulance which is very hazardous to the health of this patient. It has a very bad effect on the psychology of our children living in an enclosed area as I said 5.7 square kilometres in diameter they cannot go out for sports, schooling, conferences and so on you see unless they get a special permit, even to go to pray in the Holy Sepulchre or in the mosque for the Muslims you have to get this special permit and Christians are given this permit only through the church during the Holy Days Christmas, Easter and so on and not all Christians are given this permit. So really we’re living in a big prison that you cannot move out of the city without a special permit from the Israeli authorities. This has a very bad effect on the citizens, this has caused a lot of families to immigrate outside of the city, this has changed the demography of the City of Bethlehem. Before 1948, 92% of the citizens were Christians, now Christians only account for 35% of the citizens of Bethlehem. There is immigration of Muslims too from our Muslim brothers but its not so apparent like the Christian immigration from the city and this is all due to the bad economic situation with the pressure of living under occupation.
This is how the city lives. We in the Bethlehem municipality we have 15 members in the Council, 8 Christians and 7 Muslims and by special Presidential decree the Mayor of Bethlehem even by elections should be Christian as well as in the other 9 cities in the Palestinian National Authority. It is by a special presidential decree. Given the special character of these ten cities, there is a history of our Lord Jesus Christ in this part of the world.
The cities are Bethlehem, Beit Sahour and Beit Jala in this governorate okay and other cities are all over the Palestinian National Authority. Muslims and Christians are very good neighbours in this community and in all over Palestine we are a model really of co-existence between the two communities. We do not have any problems at all even in the Municipal Council everything goes on very smoothly because we work as one body for the benefit of the citizens of the city. The City of Bethlehem have 32,000, the Governorate of Bethlehem is 180,000 and in the Governorate of Bethlehem we have about 29 local authorities, either small ones or big ones you see. We have what we call the joint service council for solid waste management for the whole governorate. I am the Chairman of this solid waste management joint services. It applies for all the governorate of Bethlehem for 180,000 people. We own as Bethlehem, Beit Jala, Beit Sahour we own the water supply for the cities and for the dirty water, waste sewage, Beit Jala, Bethlehem and Beit Sahour. We own as Bethlehem 5 out of 11 roads, Beit Sahour holds 3 and Bet Jala 3. This is as far as the city.
Now if you want to talk about the political issue. The political issue is this. We seek peace in a peaceful manner. Our President always talks about this because we want peace, we need peace as well as the Israelis need peace by the way. Our President and Prime Minister always talk about peace, they want to have peace and we have accepted the two state solution on the 1967 borders which gives us 22% only of our historical Palestine but unfortunately until now Israel is not willing to accept this peace. Israel is still building new settlements in the Palestinian part where supposedly this area should be given to the Palestinians to establish a viable Palestinian State on. We have over 150 settlements with about half a million settlers living in them in the Palestinian part where we should establish our Palestinian State on. This eventually building these settlements will eventually give us only 13% of historical Palestine with the cities disconnected you cannot have a viable Palestinian State and that is why for the past year our President was not willing to sit and talk peace until they stop building these settlements and they accept the 1967 borders for the State of Palestine but unfortunately until now Israel is not willing to stop building these settlements, they’re building more and more every day so that within a year or two we’ll have no more land to establish a viable Palestine state on. Very simple as that. If the world, the free world will force Israel to implement UN resolution 242, 181, 194 believe me we will have peace within 24 hours.
We are against killing any human being on this planet whether Muslim, Jew or Christian. We are a peace seeking people, we love peace, we need peace and we are trying to get this peace in a peaceful manner but unfortunately as you have heard there were talks in Amman in Jordan for the past month with no result at all. Israelis are not willing to stop building these settlements and these settlements are impediments to peace because you cannot have so many settlements in the Palestinian side dividing the Palestinian cities, it will never be a viable Palestinian State. This is our position as far as the political solution but our President still even today says we want peace, we are ready to sit and talk peace but unfortunately for the past 18-20 years bilateral talks lead to nothing. The US and the Europeans and Australia, everyone are not willing to make pressure on Israel unfortunately. They do not have the courage to stand and tell Israel enough is enough. We need peace in the world, why not force Israel to implement UN resolutions as it has been forced everywhere in Afghanistan, in Lebanon, in Iraq, everywhere but when it comes to Israel everyone is afraid. Unfortunately. This is our position. I mean if things remain like this, believe me we’ll have extremism all over the world. Once we have peace here, we’ll have peach all over the world. And as you have seen what’s happening around us in the other Arab countries around us, well you know they say it’s the Arab Spring but unfortunately this Arab Spring brought governments all over the world that are built on religion, the Muslim brotherhood governments whether in Libya, Libya is not, there are still many, many troubles in Libya, Libya, Tunisia, which was open to everyone Tunisia is now going to be governed by the Muslim brotherhood, Egypt you see what’s happened too, they got 70% of the vote, Syria is on the way and if Syrians, we are against dictatorships but at the same time we don’t want to get worst dictatorships built on religion which will be more extremist. I’ll tell you very frankly this ………………….. has been I mean the turning point is now really helped by the US and the Europeans are standing with these regimes that will not be very helpful, I hope they’ll be democratic but I cannot see a government or a state built on religion can be democratic. To me I believe any statement on the …………………. would be undemocratic, the only democracy that can be is if its stays with, to be a secular state that you do not mix religion with statehood, like in Australia, like in the States, all over Europe but what’s happening around us is exactly the opposite. Where it will reach nobody knows because I don’t believe there will be a true democracy in these governments. Any statement of religion, in Egypt you have about 10 million Christians between the 80 million inhabitants, in Syria you have many Christians. See what’s happening in Iraq, burning churches, killing Christians. In Egypt it has happened too, burning churches and so on so really the Christian community in the orient are now a little bit afraid of what’s going to happen. We hope that because there are many I mean Muslim brothers here who look for democracy for building, for example in Palestine 70% of the Muslims in Palestine want a secular democratic state, they don’t want a state built on religion. Even the Muslims want this.
But what’s happening around us doesn’t look brilliant like our state in Palestine. Our government is more open to the world you see. Egypt was open to the world, Tunisia was but now what will happen we don’t know. I hope that we’ll have democracies there too, it will take some time, it will take some time but we hope that they’ll be open and we’ll have some democracy there. This is how it is here for the conflict, the Israeli Palestinian conflict really can be so very easily if we can implement UN resolutions and the only way to make Israel implement UN resolutions to me now since we don’t say use force but you can use the same thing like has been done in South Africa, boycott. This is the only way to force them to come to the table and make peace by cutting Israel, it’s not enough that NGOs and persons to boycott all firms but there should be a boycott by governments and this is the way as I see it is farfetched because the US is not willing, the Europeans are not willing to boycott Israel to make Israel implement the UN resolution. This is the only way, I mean you cannot use force against Israel to make them implement UN resolutions but this is a peaceful manner to make Israel come to peace. And I think it’s for the benefit of Israel to make peace nowadays with what’s happening nowadays in the Arab world as you see. Well this is our position and we still hope, we hope for peace because we love peace and from Bethlehem this is our message, a message of love and peace, we should build bridges of love and understanding between the people, not build walls of cement which prevents people from having contact with each other.
Thank you for coming and if you have any questions I will ………………..
Question and Answer Session
Question: Thank you very much for your invitation and talk. The question I have today is if in Egypt and the surrounding Arab countries there is a Muslim brotherhood or a Muslim or religious based organisations coming into power, what effect will that in the longer term do you think will have on Israel?
Answer: Well I mean the Israelis should think about this. That’s why I say the sooner they make peace the better. To me Israel is asking for an Israeli-Jewish state, okay. Now the highest percentage of the states around Israel is Muslims. That’s why they are now asking for Muslin-Arab States and if religion interferes in statehood there’ll turn out to be accidents, whether Israelis or Arab states. That’s why I say there should be democratic secular states in this part of the world as it is all over the world, it would be easier to solve the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Who knows what will happen, nobody knows, we cannot foresee what the States will look like in a few years, maybe now they say okay we recognise what has been signed between Egypt, Jordan and Israel but the longer you cannot foresee what would happen if things are not solved I tell you very frankly we’ll have more accidents.
Question: How much is the question of alliance between Fatah and Hamas a key to putting pressure on the European Union, Australia and the United States to tell Israel to stop its cruelty and to implement the UN resolutions?
Answer: I think the Arabs States have the power to make US and Israel come to peace but unfortunately now the Arab world are not using this power really because they are linked with the American foreign policy most of the rulers in the Arab States before were linked and I would say they were puppets to the American policy but that’s what I have said this is in relation to nobody knows with the change of the States and the governments of these Arab countries will continue to be puppets in the hands of the US and the Europeans.
Question: What about the alliance between Hamas and Fatah?
Answer: It will be more effective if there is an alliance between Fatah and Hamas and all the Palestinian people definitely it will be if you talk as one body you will be stronger you see in front of the whole world and in front of Israel too, in front of Israel but you need I mean the US mainly because the Europeans actually follow what the US wants unfortunately though they are a strong body as the European Union they could have their own idea and since they are closer to us to the Holy Land here the Europeans they could have a special, their own ideas, their own political view and not linked to the US but unfortunately until now whatever the US says they follow up, they don’t have their own political view they know better than the US what’s happening here.
Question: You mentioned earlier that with the hotels and the desirability of that increasing, who’s building the hotels and who’s running them, private entrepreneurs or
Answer: The hotels are run by local people really. Until now it’s by local people.
Question: And who’ll be running them, are they going to be like?
Answer: We have you know they run them because we have hotel management school at the Bethlehem University here and we have people who are really fit to run these hotels.
Question: So the money that’s made out of that goes back to the community rather than being siphoned off somewhere else?
Answer: Yes it’s back in the community and this is how the unemployment rate really went down because its circular, it’s a circle that goes around you know, they have to buy more vegetables, more food, more people working, washing, taxis, restaurants. This is a circle that goes around that makes everyone work you see and tourists coming in they fool around there, all shops, not only the souvenir shops work even normal shops you know and you have some internal clothes from Arabs inside Israel now, they come every weekend here too, they stay in the hotels, they go around even these people give more to the community because they go around buy clothes, buy food and so on you know.
Answer: We meet Israeli Mayors outside the country but they cannot come here because their government prohibits them from coming here, it’s not our government it’s the Israeli government prohibits them to come to the Palestinian side and we cannot go there because you are not given a permit to go, so it’s the Israeli side that is prohibiting this dialogue you see. As you said before for 10 years there were no rules, they used to come over here , eat in our restaurants, sleep in the hotels, we could meet each other you see but this has been cut since the establishment of this wall possibly.
Question: I think every member of our parliament in Australia should receive an A4 colour photograph of this actually even worse than the wall the gate that we saw on the way in with the Palestinian people being herded through like cattle. If you could get us some photographs of that
Answer: Workers go and queue from 4am, those who’ve got the permit have to queue from 4am okay to pass into Jerusalem. I myself as a Mayor in my age I get a permit only because I’m a deputy chairman of the Jerusalem Electric Company to go for our meetings you see I get it through the Electric Company only because I’ve not will be given any permit to go to Jerusalem otherwise. You have to go and queue and pass through. Take off my jacket, my shoes, my belt.
Question: And workers now also have fingerprints taken.
Answer: I have to put the fingerprint yes.
Question: When the workers go at 4am how long is that, is that because it takes 4 hours to get through?
Answer: Because all the southern area pass through this checkpoint only from Hebron and all the villages of Hebron, Bethlehem, villages of Bethlehem, all pass through this checkpoint only that’s why it takes time you see.
Question: So there’s a huge queue every day?
Answer: Yes there’s a huge queue every day. There is people from outside that watch the checkpoint and they have a, every month I get , I just got last month how many people pass there, they go and watch them how they treat the people and so on. We have some foreigners who come over here and watch them and I get every month the list of how many people every day pass through checkpoint, whether women, men or old men and so on.
Question: Who does that? Who watches the checkpoint?
Answer: They are NGOs from Europe.
Question: What kind of NGOs are operating in Bethlehem?
Answer: Many NGOs, I cannot name them because we have many NGOs operating either in Bethlehem or in Ramallah but the main NGOs are really in Ramallah because now Ramallah is considered to be, it’s not the capital but it works as the capital of Beit Sahour because the President is there, the government is there you see, that’s why Ramallah is flourishing and there are no walls really near Ramallah that encircle Ramallah itself, its more open. Bethlehem is the worst that’s why we have the highest percentage of unemployment because it is encircled within this wall.
Question: Could I ask you a devil’s advocate question which is about the idea that gets trotted out by Jewish groups around the world and by Israelis is that we only do this because every time we move towards peace Hamas fires a rocket into defenceless people. I don’t believe that for one minute but that’s what we’ll get when we go back, that’s what the right wing press will say, that’s what the whole of the American Senate Congress is saying. How do you respond to that?
Answer: This is untrue actually because you know when ever, I mean these rockets are even useless rockets that’s what we say why should they I mean fire them at Israel because until now nobody dies from these rockets and taking this as a reason you know they have attacked Gaza City you know three years ago and they’ve attacked Gaza by aeroplanes, by cannons, by tanks, they’ve killed more than 1,500 people, children, women, they have injured thousands, they have destroyed thousands of houses in Gaza. I mean you cannot compare these useless rockets you see with the war machinery that Israel has. And there were no rockets fired for last 40 years because they had talks with Hamas you see in Gaza and whenever this proves to you that when there are talks we can have because they have the Israeli government has invited talks with Hamas that’s why all the rockets stopped I mean over the past 2 or 3 years after that war you see. That is no reason for not making peace. The minute you make peace there’ll be no more rockets and these are useless rockets we know this, all the world knows this.
Question: Can I follow up on that please could you explain and I’m sick of tired of you saying this well that’s the reality but the propaganda victory is ………………… You know the story …………………. including our federal politicians, I’ve had an opportunity to speak to them, they will always cite the rockets and they don’t cite the facts which you correctly said. The question is how to change the perception and to fight the propaganda which is so successfully run with essentially lies about what the realities are?
Answer: Unfortunately, the media is biased all over the world. It is governed by the Zionist lobby, even I mean, the US foreign policy is really done by the Zionist lobby in the US, APAT, if you know is APAT, and by the Zionist Christian community, they have the fundamentalist Christians who are pro Israeli, not 100% they’re more Zionist than the Israelis themselves because they believe actually the Old Testament that we should have the kingdom of Israel at the end of the world and then all the Jews will become Christians. This is what they believe. I’ve been with……………………… so they believe in this but I tell them are you a Christian, I’m a Christian, well since you are a Christian, talk as a Christian God is not a man who sells land or he’s not as you know a salesman he’s no different ………………………………… his sons and daughters, we’re all sons of God so don’t tell me that, this is nonsense I mean, actually the Zionist lobby are using them and unfortunately they use what we call anyone who stands and talks about Israel, not about Judaism is labelled as anti Semitic and that’s why the world is afraid of them, unfortunately but I think nothing will be solved unless we have a statesman who’ll be courageous enough to stand and talk and say the truth.
Question: Mr Mayor, you mentioned earlier the need for secular democratic governments in this region, do you have any thoughts on why these extreme Muslim brotherhood type governments or movements are starting to come about at the moment at the very time that there’s a shift in world opinion about the situation here in Palestine. You think it’s too convenient that the Americans may have quite a lot to do with promoting these extremist brotherhoods?
Answer: I think they do it because the Muslim brotherhood are the only group that has been working with the lower class and the middle class, they’re spending money in schools, hospitals, educational centres, sports centres, they have, it’s like what Hamas has been doing here that’s why they got the last elections, they got the upper hand and they are the only group you see that are well organised as a political group. I think the States and the Europeans think maybe they could, if they come to power they could work with them and make them try to be more democratic. Unfortunately we don’t know, let’s hope so. Let’s hope so but I don’t believe so.
Question: Mr Mayor, would you be able to talk a little bit about civil society and the BDS call because a lot of people here, some people here are not aware of it and how it is authorised by the Palestinian people?
Answer: Well the BDS has been you know governed by and has started from the Christian community in Palestine and we as Christians of the Orient you see, we have a place in this society, we are the original citizens of the Holy Land. Even our Muslim brothers say this so though we are smaller in number but our actions are very powerful and they have decided since 2 years you see to say plainly to all the world that we need peace in this part of the world. As a civil society we can live together as two communities Christians and Muslims and if there is peace Jews too. And as I said before they found that the only way to reach to peace is by making Israel implement UN resolutions in a peaceful manner which is the boycott sanctions against Israel and this is the message of the Christians of the Orient, not only in Palestine and it was sent to the Vatican and its going on now all over the world. The Kyros? don’t know if they heard about the Kyros too. It’s like the South African message yes okay. I think we could manage if they are saying things to get to some of the books about it. The message of the Kyros which is the message of the Christian Orient through the world about the Israeli Palestinian conflict.
Question: We understand that 170 organisations in civil society have endorsed the call for BDS.
Answer: Yes, around the world, especially many many Christian churches are calling for it and I think this is the only way as I said before which BDS is boycott, divestment and sanctions, BDS, boycott, divestment and sanctions against Israel and this is the only way as I said before to make Israel come to a peaceful solution to the Israeli Palestinian conflict.
When we talked outside about peace and that we should talk together, we should work together for peace as Mayors for Peace, a city diplomacy, unfortunately they do nothing about it. They’re afraid to stand for their government and tell them this is wrong. I told them this the last time we had a meeting just a few months ago in Cologne you know with the European Mayors and Israeli Mayors and I told them I think this is the last time I’m ready to come and talk because unfortunately we’ve been meeting in a big forum, I mean not only Israelis, European Mayors too, sometimes from the US and we talk here but unfortunately what happen happens when we’re back home, you don’t stand for your government and tell them this is wrong. And what’s the use of coming and talking and since you are not able to stand, you represent as Mayors, elected Mayors, the people of your cities. If you don’t have the courage to stand up and talk about peace, stand up and talk to your government what it does something wrong to the Palestinians, what’s the use of meeting people, it’s like the ………….. approach that I’m going on, I mean. They do not want to stand for the government and tell them this is wrong. I mean if these Mayors really that are elected you know political figures are not standing up to tell their government we want peace, you should go and make peace, you should stop building these settlements, if you really want peace what’s the use of meeting here.
Question: What do they say to you when you challenge them, these Israeli Mayors?
Answer: We cry, we curse over we cannot talk everything even when I talked about the water supply, I mean they are taking our water, we cannot talk about it, they’re afraid to talk about anything unfortunately.
Question: Just on the water supply, I know we have to wrap it up soon, but could you tell us a little bit about the problems that Council faces?
Answer: This is one of the most important really problems that we have in Bethlehem, not only in Bethlehem, all the Palestinian Authority. We get only 17% of our water, our own water, they get 83% from our wells to the settlements. The settlements do not have collecting tanks for their water because they get their water for 24 hours a day, we get our once every 15-20 days for 2 days or 3 days. The settlements get their water all the day all the year around every minute, every second, they don’t have collection tanks to keep the water because they get it all over the day while we as Palestinians, especially here in Bethlehem in the southern part, we get the water only once every 15 to 20 days for a couple of days, that’s why we should have water collection tanks to keep the water and most of the time it’s not enough. And with the increase of citizens this agreement has been signed since Oslo, that’s about 20 years ago, the same amount is given, we have more citizens you see, we have more pilgrims and tourists coming, we have more hotels and it’s a really big problem, one of the biggest problems we have is our water supply.
Question: And the water source, the water here, is coming from where?
Answer: The water is coming in, they collect it from here and from there and they resell us our water. And we are not allowed to dig for water to get water unless they give you the licence and the depth they give you only, you cannot dig any well.
Finally, the European Parliament wrote something about the water and they said this is an unhuman what Israel is doing to the Palestinians. Finally just last week.
Formal presentation made to Mayor