Tuesday, November 22, 2005

Open Bethlehem

(left) Leila Sansour with Bethlehem passport

It is perhaps unprecedented for a city to issue its own passport, but this is what Bethlehem has done in order to draw international attention to the devastating impact of political instability and of Israel’s so-called security barrier.

The passport was unveiled at a press conference at the Foreign Press Association in central London a few days ago. The event was held to mark the launch of Open Bethlehem, a project that is spearheading an international campaign to save the West Bank city.

Open Bethlehem’s chief executive, the Palestinian filmmaker Leila Sansour, described the passport as a declaration of self-determination. “We are telling the world that our city is open to anyone who wishes to come and live with us.”

The Mayor of Bethlehem, Victor Batarseh, travelled to London for the Open Bethlehem launch. “My city is dying because it is imprisoned,” he said. A combination of walls and fences completely surrounds the urban core of the Bethlehem region. “This is not, as the Israelis claim, a security barrier. It cuts through villages within the Bethlehem area, separating Palestinians from Palestinians. In a strict and literal sense, it is a ghetto wall, and Bethlehem is a prison town.”

The mayor pointed out that the multi-faith character of Bethlehem makes it a working model for local democracy in the Middle East. “If Bethlehem dies, one of the brightest hopes for a democratic Middle East dies with it.”

The vital tourist traffic on which the city’s economy largely depends slumped from an average of nearly 92,000 tourists a month in 2000 to only 7,249 a month in 2004. Four hundred Christian families have left the city since 2000.

The mission of Open Bethlehem, which is headquartered at Bethlehem University, is to strengthen the city’s economic base. The “people-to-people and city-to-city” approach will operate through Bethlehem’s elected bodies, civic institutions, university, museums, churches and mosques. The aim is to encourage investment, to reach out to the diaspora of Palestinians, and to promote Bethlehem around the world. Artists, journalists, filmmakers and writers are encouraged to visit, perform or work in Bethlehem.

Open Bethlehem is supported by some eminent personalities, including Archbishop Desmond Tutu, Noam Chomsky and former US President Jimmy Carter. At a presentation at the Frontline Club, the speakers included veteran BBC journalist Martin Bell, former International Development Secretary Clare Short and left-wing comedian Jeremy Hardy.

Presentations were also made at the Royal Institute of International Affairs, the House of Commons All-Party Palestine Group, the Middle East Association and the World Travel Market. From London, Sansour travelled to the US to make a presentation at the National Press Club in Washington.

The situation on the ground is growing ever more difficult. The Times newspaper reported on Saturday that Bethlehem has been sealed off from Jerusalem, just in time for Christmas, by an 8-meter wall and huge iron gate resembling a nuclear shelter.

Open Bethlehem’s website is at www.openbethlehem.org

Susannah Tarbush
Saudi Gazette
22 November 2005

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