Mayor of Bethlehem, Dr. Victor Batarsa, held his traditional Christmas
season kick-off press conference and stressed that “the birthplace of
Jesus Christ is in its worst economic, political and tourist conditions
in those 2000 years.”
Dr. Batarsa continued, "in Bethlehem, the dire situation is due to the procedures and practices of the occupation that continues to increase in severity in and around the city.”
“And most of the so-called security fence on our land has forced large numbers of people to leave their homes and move,” he added. The Mayor pointed out the emigration is among the most serious issues the city faces, as does the rest of the West Bank, East Jerusalem, and the Gaza Strip. “The conditions are so deplorable that the practices are clearly intended to vacate the land of its people.”
He stressed that the Wall is being built on Bethlehem lands, isolating some 7,000 dunams of its territory, including the entire northern region which constitutes 15 percent of Bethlehem. The Israelis annexed it to the Jerusalem that they now control. “This has had a negative impact on everyone and a catastrophic effect on many. Hundreds of farmers have lost their lands and without that income the tourist industry becomes even more important, but that has suffered as well.”
The Israelis do tell people it is unsafe to come to Bethlehem, and anywhere in the West Bank, directly and through guide-books, but do not say that the danger is from the Israeli army. Only the soldiers at the checkpoints will periodically admit to that, telling a foreign PNN editor to “stay away just for tonight,” when a major Israeli invasion was conducted last year. An Israeli guidebook for foreign tourists read in large print, "DO NOT STAY IN ARAB AREAS OVERNIGHT."
Shopkeepers are desperate to sell their dusty olive wood carvings and traditional nativity scenes. There is little practical hope in Bethlehem that the situation will improve this year. More tourists than came last year to Manger Square for Christmas Eve day festivities, but most were bused in and bused out without eating in the restaurants or staying in the hotels. The buses were Israeli.
Bethlehem's Mayor Batarsa pointed to a rise in the rate of unemployment, reaching 65 percent and all are living under the poverty line as a result. Thousands of students can no longer reach their schools as the Wall and settlement roads prohibit them, and more still cannot reach Bethlehem University in the heart of Bethlehem, or the Al Quds branch in Abu Dis. Hospitals are now unreachable for many in the Bethlehem District as they are trapped in the ghettos that checkpoints, the Wall and its gate system have created.
The Mayor joked bitterly that “Santa Claus will not make it to Bethlehem this year.” The 50,000 dollars approved by the Palestinian government for Christmas celebrations in Bethlehem, for decorations and beautification, has not yet reach the city, despite being told that the funds had been deposited into the municipality's bank account.
Batarsa said, “Despite all of the Israeli practices, our people still have hope for a better future and still have the ability to deliver a message of love and tolerance; the Christmas message to the whole world. And our people still have hope to live in peace on the land of Palestine while welcoming the world.”
The tree in front of the Church of Nativity will still be lit on the 15th, as it has been every year possible.