ONTD Political

New female mayor gears Bethlehem up for Christmas

2:44 pm - 12/23/2012

Vera Baboun, a Christian, tries to raise hope in city plagued by economic woes, says ‘we’re celebrating birth of Jesus… and of Palestinian state’

BETHLEHEM, West Bank (AP) — Bethlehem’s first female mayor, Vera Baboun, can’t walk through the main square of the biblical town without being stopped by admirers.

“This is our new mayor, who is turning Bethlehem into one of the greatest cities in the world,” a tour guide hollered to a group of Christian tourists passing by the Church of the Nativity, built over the grotto where tradition says Jesus was born.

Starting with Christmas celebrations — the high point of the year in the town — Baboun is hoping to turn things around in the troubled city. For the past seven years, the Islamist Hamas militant group had a strong presence in Bethlehem’s leadership, prompting a cutoff of international aid funds. But they lost their seats in the October elections that brought in Baboun, who is Christian, as Bethlehem’s mayors traditionally are.

The local economy is battered, with the highest unemployment in the West Bank, and local Christians continue to leave Bethlehem, which years ago moved from a Christian majority to a Muslim one. But Baboun is trying to raise hope, pointing to the Palestinans’ recent boost of status at the United Nations.

“We still have a long way to go, but the Christmas season is special this year because not only do we celebrate the birth of Christ, but we are celebrating the birth of the Palestinian state,” Baboun said, standing next to a 17-meter Christmas tree. “It is a Christmas of peace, of hope and love.”

The United Nations General Assembly’s vote last month to upgrade the Palestinians’ status to that of a nonmember observer state set off celebrations across the West Bank.

The move changed little on the ground, with Israel opposing the UN recognition bid and saying it bypassed peace negotiations aimed at establishing a state.

Bethlehem, like the rest of the West Bank, fell onto hard times after the violent Palestinian uprising against Israel broke out in late 2000, frightening tourists and pilgrims away. As the fighting has subsided in recent years, the tourists have returned in larger numbers. Last year’s Christmas Eve celebration produced the highest turnout in more than a decade, with some 100,000 visitors, including foreigners and Arab Christians from Israel, reaching Bethlehem.

The Israeli Tourism Ministry said it expects 75,000 tourists to arrive for Christmas this year, citing last month’s clash between Israel and Palestinian militants in Gaza as a reason for the drop. It said there was a 12 percent decrease overall in incoming tourism to Israel last month. Foreign tourists heading to Bethlehem must pass through Israel or the Israel-controlled border crossing from Jordan.

Bethlehem officials say all 34 hotels in the town are fully booked for the Christmas season, including 13 new ones built this year.

About 22,000 Palestinians live in Bethlehem, according to the town council.

Israel turned control of Bethlehem over to the Palestinian Authority a few days before Christmas in 1995, and since then it has become an independence celebration for local Palestinians, as well as a religious holiday for Christians. The square is filled with a mix of tourists, pilgrims and young Palestinians, making it hard to determine how many tourists are there.

The Christmas season is the mainstay of Bethlehem’s economy. When tourism lags because of politics or violence, the town lurches into depression.

Baboun hopes to revitalize her town’s depressed economy through tourism. She said Bethlehem has the highest unemployment rate in the West Bank, at around 20 percent. UN figures say unemployment in the West Bank is 17 percent, a figure that may well under-represent the economic crisis, given the large numbers of underemployed in the West Bank.

She is also looking for a return of international aid to the town after Hamas dropped out of the municipal council. The Islamist group won nearly half the seats on the council in 2006 — the last time municipal elections were held. That sparked a halt in aid programs by the European Union, United States and others because they consider the group a terror organization. However, Hamas, which rules the Gaza Strip, boycotted October’s municipal elections, and now the council is held by leftists, independents and the moderate Fatah faction.

Baboun says her status as the town’s first woman mayor can be a draw. “That people voted for me, even many men, is a sign Palestinians want change,” she said.

“I think she is a remarkable woman and a remarkable person,” said Nabil Shaath, an aide to Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas. “I’m sure she will excel.”

Many residents remain skeptical.

Ayesh Salahat, a young Palestinian, appeared unimpressed by the Christmas decorations of Manger Square and the elaborate fireworks that coincided with last week’s lighting of the tree. Even as he watched dozens of tourists from all over the world taking pictures in the square, he said he doubted things would get better.

“I don’t think we’ll see any improvement in unemployment or services in Bethlehem,” he said. “I’m not hopeful life will ever change here.”

Outside the town’s quaint Manger Square, Bethlehem is a drab, sprawling town with a dwindling Christian base.

Overall, there are only about 50,000 Christians in the West Bank, less than 3 percent of the population, the result of a lower birthrate and increased emigration. Bethlehem’s Christians make up only a third of the town’s residents, down from 75 percent a few decades ago.

Located on the southeastern outskirts of Jerusalem, Bethlehem is surrounded on three sides by a barrier Israel built to stop Palestinian militants after a wave of suicide bomb attacks in the last decade. Palestinians say the barrier has damaged their economy by restricting movement in and out of town.

“Our city is literally surrounded by settlements and walls,” she said, pointing to the nearby barrier, where locals have painted a Christmas tree enclosed by gates. “It harms our growth, there’s no exchange of people, ideas, goods.”

Despite the hardships, Baboun said she is hopeful ahead of the holiday season, in large part due to the successful UN bid.

“This Christmas will be one of thanks, a message of peace for our statehood,” she said, “but also a reminder that our fight is not over.”


aviv 23rd-Dec-2012 05:53 pm (UTC)
Well, that was fast!!!

Thank you mods :)
chaya 23rd-Dec-2012 08:49 pm (UTC)
aviv 23rd-Dec-2012 08:52 pm (UTC)
berest 23rd-Dec-2012 06:24 pm (UTC)
poor ignorant mayor.
I doubt she's picked up a correct person to commemorate)
How is she gonna make her city rich if Crhist himself said:

it is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle
than for a rich person to enter the Kingdom of God!"

coyotesuspect 23rd-Dec-2012 06:38 pm (UTC)
this is such an obnoxious comment
berest 23rd-Dec-2012 06:52 pm (UTC)
nobody says it's easy to follow Christ

Jesus answered, "If you want to be perfect, go, sell your possessions and give to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven. Then come, follow me."
When the young man heard this, he went away sad, because he had great wealth.

well you can chose: wealth or hell)
Or atheism, which I would prefer.
sfrlz 23rd-Dec-2012 07:53 pm (UTC)
From one atheist to another... no.
eveofrevolution 23rd-Dec-2012 07:22 pm (UTC)
redstar826 23rd-Dec-2012 07:38 pm (UTC)
It's quite a leap though to go from that verse to the assumption that trying to create economic prosperity for a city is anti-Christian
berest 23rd-Dec-2012 08:26 pm (UTC)
I am so sorry that I've reminded about the words of Christ. It's very painful for you to hear the gospel, I see.
...very obnoxious indeed) Next time I cite Malleus Maleficarum and suchlike)
redstar826 23rd-Dec-2012 08:56 pm (UTC)
so, what exactly is it that you are arguing for? That the city not do anything about economic troubles which it currently faces?
nesmith 24th-Dec-2012 12:12 am (UTC)
Well, if you're looking come across as obnoxious and self-righteous, you're doing a great job.
rebness 23rd-Dec-2012 07:41 pm (UTC)
This comment is just really stupid and obnoxious. I've been sitting here for like five minutes thinking of an appropriate gif or a rejoinder about you making us atheists look bad, but in the end -- it's stupid and obnoxious.

berest 23rd-Dec-2012 08:32 pm (UTC)
well if you think for another 5 mins you'll find that according to Christ the correct way to get into heaven dosn't imply seeking prosperity)
rebness 23rd-Dec-2012 08:54 pm (UTC)
lol maybe you need to take five minutes to learn why ending sentences with ) is stupid.

Also, troll. Go away.
berest 23rd-Dec-2012 09:46 pm (UTC)
maybe you R right. But why don't you check thesaurus to find some synonyms for the stupid? It looks stupid to write stupid in every stupid comment.
coyotesuspect 24th-Dec-2012 12:24 am (UTC)
This is such a derailing comment I cannot even
berest 24th-Dec-2012 04:40 pm (UTC)
This is such a railing comment I cannot odd :)
aviv 23rd-Dec-2012 07:45 pm (UTC)
???? She's trying to bring prosperity to the city (through tourists and pilgrims), which has nothing to do with that quote.
berest 23rd-Dec-2012 08:17 pm (UTC)
Sure! Of course you know about Kingdom of God better, than Jesus)
aviv 23rd-Dec-2012 08:31 pm (UTC)
No, I only have a better reading comprehension than you.

Bye troll.
berest 23rd-Dec-2012 08:34 pm (UTC)
If you want to sound trustworthy you should call your "better reading comprehension" dyslexia.
harukami 23rd-Dec-2012 08:49 pm (UTC)
Considering that the meaning of the verse is that those who hoard greedily and don't use what they have to take care of the poor are committing a sin through their behaviour, while attempting to raise the prosperity of a city is a way to take care of its citizens... yyyes, they do.
berest 24th-Dec-2012 04:49 pm (UTC)
Personally I appreciate tourism, prosperity, peace and so on.
When it is based on humanism and ethics, , civil law, not religion.

Edited at 2012-12-24 04:49 pm (UTC)
harukami 24th-Dec-2012 07:23 pm (UTC)
Ok, so you have a city famous all over the world for being the birthplace of a historical figure who became mythological (much as King Arthur did). This is the absolute best choice, in terms of drawing on a fame they already had, to try to massage tourism to help increase their city's prosperity -- unless you have a better suggestion for associations with the name Bethlehem that can draw people from around the world? Or should they just ignore that and sink further into poverty for the sake of not mentioning mythological terms? (Should Tintagel also avoid mentioning King Arthur, because people only know the religious myths about him?)

That aside, if what you believe is "People shouldn't rely on religion to raise tourism", then fucking say that. Don't fucking try to pretend they're being hypocrites by misquoting religious text in the wrong context. That makes you look like a smarmy, self-righteous asshole, instead of a guy with opinion about religion.
berest 24th-Dec-2012 09:19 pm (UTC)
What is going on, Harukami?
Don't be so nervous, tell us what's wrong with your asshole.
It obviously makes you exacerbated and grumpy)
As a doctor I can give you a good advice, but I need some info first
harukami 24th-Dec-2012 10:28 pm (UTC)
Annnd now I just hope you're banned for sexual harassment.
wonderpup 25th-Dec-2012 09:00 am (UTC)
the_gabih 23rd-Dec-2012 08:24 pm (UTC)
Because of course trying to generate some income for her people based on something that's a huge tourist attraction is her being anti-Christian.

Go away.
wrestlingdog 23rd-Dec-2012 09:31 pm (UTC)
berest 23rd-Dec-2012 09:47 pm (UTC)
who is that bearded man? Varg Vikernes, I suppose? )
hinoema 24th-Dec-2012 04:44 am (UTC)
Aah! That explains that.
sesmo 24th-Dec-2012 12:25 am (UTC)
And here I thought working to help those who are poor and oppressed was a christian thing to do. Clearly you and I have read different Bibles.
coyotesuspect 23rd-Dec-2012 07:54 pm (UTC)
ugh I wrote up a long ass comment about tourism in Israel and Palestine, and lj ate it. But to sum up:

I dislike how this article frames the problem with Bethlehem's economy being due primarily to the second intifada, and doesn't address at all the complete stranglehold Israel has on the West Bank (as very physically represented by the Wall) and Israel's ability to control the flow of goods and people in and out of Israel. ETA: originally wrote "movements" when I meant "people."

Going off of that: it's disingenous to suggest increased tourism will improve Bethlehem's economy, given aforementioned economic stranglehold, particularly when said tourism is primarily Christian groups being bussed in, herded from holy site to holy site, and then bussed back to sleep and eat dinner in Jerusalem.

But best of luck to the mayor.

Edited at 2012-12-23 07:55 pm (UTC)
aviv 23rd-Dec-2012 08:16 pm (UTC)
I agree with you, though I do think that tourism can improve a city's economy, but only when they are free to go from place to place and not, as you say, "herded from holy site to holy site".

coyotesuspect 23rd-Dec-2012 11:29 pm (UTC)
That's true! It *can* improve it, it's just kind of missing some of the fundamental issues. And I don't mean to say tourists aren't allowed to go where they want in Bethlehem. They are. The nature of the industry - particularly in Bethlehem - is such that most tourists do get bussed in and taken from place to place by their tour guide and then bussed back. But people can (and I personally have!) go into Bethlehem and hire a personal guide, or take a taxi (taxi drivers in Bethlehem are very, very willing to show you around), or just grab a map and see things for themselves.

But most don't, and that's partly because, when you have to go through a checkpoint, and considering how scared most tourists are of being in Palestine, and considering that it is pretty difficult, heavily governmental supervised process to become a tour guide in Israel it's easier for tourists and tour guides alike to shuttle groups around and base them in Jerusalem.
coyotesuspect 24th-Dec-2012 12:03 am (UTC)
Oh yeah, I definitely get where the mayor is coming from. And prior to the Wall being built, Bethlehem got a lot more tourism and tourists staying/shopping in Bethlehem and the economy was a lot better.

I just feel like the article itself presents the issue too simplistically. There are a lot of deep, structural issues for why tourism is currently not providing a lot for Bethlehem's economy, and those are completely elided in the article.
coyotesuspect 24th-Dec-2012 12:20 am (UTC)
All very true!

But I think the situation is even trickier in Bethlehem/Palestine at large, given the nature of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Palestinians spends billions of dollars buying Israeli goods, because those are the goods they get. They don't have the ability to import their own goods or export other goods, so other than shift their focus to the local economy, they don't have a lot of ability to generate money or seek a fairer price. And then there's how difficult it is to get a work permit to go into Israel (where wages are higher), and even if you are a Palestinian who is lucky enough to get a work permit and job in Israel, you're still constantly at risk of losing it because of how long getting through security every day can be. And then are Palestinians who lost property (and thus capital) with the construction of the Wall. So I don't think it's accurate necessarily to characterize the problems with Palestine's economy as being the same as any developing country's.

For Bethlehem itself, it really isn't a matter of attracting more tourists. It's one of the holiest sites in all of Christendom; there will always be pilgrims. It's more a matter of getting those tourists to see more than just two or three churches, and actually go out and spend money in Bethlehem. So, even if you just want to limit the discussion to tourism, this article is still too simplistic, because (imo) it fundamentally misrepresents the problem as being "there aren't enough tourists" rather than being about the nature of that tourism itself.

And I'm not sure people understand how close Bethlehem is to Jerusalem. It's not like you travel from a blank stretch of desert for half an hour; there is literally just a wall separating them. That's how close they are, and obviously, when two cities are that close, their economies will be very interconnected, and now that's all been shut off.

I hope this doesn't come across as a rant! I agree with what you're saying wrt the over-reliance on tourism for developing economies; this is just an issue that interests me, so I have a lot to say about it. :X

ETA: Used there when I meant their.

Edited at 2012-12-24 12:22 am (UTC)
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