Wednesday, February 22, 2012

Living in a Walled in City, Bethlehem

This morning we were warmly greeted by the Mayor of Bethlehem, Dr. Victor Batarseh, and his Public Relation's Officer, Carmen. Dr. Batarseh spoke of the major problems in Bethlehem: the separation barrier (wall), unemployment which is the highest in the Occupied Territories at 18-20%, health,water, freedom of religion, inability to get permits to go outside of the OccupiedTerritories even for religious reasons at high holy days when the faithful wish to make the 6 mile pilgrimage to Jerusalem. He said, "We are living in a cell."

In 1948 and before approximately 92% of the population of Bethlehem was Christian; today that number is about 35%. Today the total Christian population in the Occupied Territories is only 1.2%. T his is due largely to Christians being forced out of their properties. In 1948 and up to 1966, Bethlehem has shrunk from 31 square kilometers of land to 5.8 kilometers of land. The land that has been carved out by the Israeli's is the farmland, from which many Bethlehemites earned their livelihood. To date 1,000,000 olive trees have been uprooted--the olive branch being a universal symbol of peace. The population of Bethlehem is about 32,000; with surrounding villages it is $135,000. There are 87,000 illegal settlers living on confiscated land. The confiscation of land is illegal according to International Humanitarian Law, but no one seems to be able to control Israel.
The water problem is terrible. The Israeli's control 80% of the water in the West Ooccupied Territories. While the settlements have swimming pools and water slide parks, the Bethlehemites receive water for 2 days of every 2 weeks. This means that water has to be captured in water tanks, and other containers so that you don't run out. During the summer it might be 20 days between times for water to be turned on, and then perhaps for one day. The rates for water are triple the rates for Israeli's and the amount is quite limited. We are conscious here of not taking too many showers. The sewer system is also very primitive and toilet paper cannot be flushed down the toilet. In every toilet--private or public--there is a bin next to the toilet for the used toilet paper. The first day in the hotel I didn't know it and completely clogged the system. I was not the most popular EA.

Freedom of religion has been a serious problem for both Christians and Moslems. One morning when I was at the checkpoint the soldiers were refusing to let the men pray. They were late beginning their prayer as they had been standing in line. As soon as they passed through the document check and exited the terminal they were dropping to their knees in prayer. The soldiers, pointing their automatic guns, made them stop praying. One man was taken inside and was questioned for about 30 minutes before being released. Freedom of religion is specifically protected under International Humanitarian Law.

The tourism trade is not helping very much. Most tours do not stay in hotels in Bethlehem which means they go where the bus tells them to go. They make deals with shop owners that they will bring busses, but the tour company will take up to 40% of the sales. The tourists pay highly inflated prices, so they prefer to shop in the malls in Tel Aviv.

Carmen told a story of electricity. In the early 2000's when things were even worse, the elctricity would last only a few hours a day. She tells how she and her family did their cleaning in candlelight--quite romantic, which for her family was normal as she is named for the opera "Carmen."

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