The new mayor of Jesus’ traditional birthplace is a 70-year-old surgeon from a radical PLO faction, swept to power by voter frustration with the Palestinian Authority’s ruling Fatah movement. But on his first day at work Tuesday, Mayor Victor Batarseh emphasized that he is a church-going Roman Catholic and will preserve Bethlehem as a Christian town, even though his ruling coalition is dominated by the Islamic militant Hamas.
The new mayor of Jesus’ traditional birthplace is a 70-year-old surgeon from a radical PLO faction, swept to power by voter frustration with the Palestinian Authority’s ruling Fatah movement. But on his first day at work Tuesday, Mayor Victor Batarseh emphasized that he is
a church-going Roman Catholic and will preserve Bethlehem as a Christian town, even though his ruling coalition is dominated by the Islamic militant Hamas.
“Bethlehem will remain a symbol of Christianity forever,” Batarseh, who also holds U.S. citizenship, told The Associated Press in an interview. He spoke in his office on Manger Square, across from the Church of the Nativity, the basilica built on the grotto where tradition says Jesus was born.
While some local Christians welcomed the change, hoping for cleaner government, others said they were worried by Hamas’ presence in the City Council.
Samir Qumsieh, director of the local Nativity TV station, said he fears Hamas will try to take control. “Hamas has ambitions,” warned Qumsieh. “I am very worried about the future of the Christians.”
Hamas’ strong showing is not just in Bethlehem; the Islamic militant group won control of more than two dozen communities in three rounds of municipal voting since December, posing a strong challenge to Fatah.
However, Hamas’ gains had special resonance in Bethlehem, a town of 30,000 where Christian influence has been dwindling and Muslims now make up 65 percent of the population. The community is shrinking because of low birth rates and because more Christians are emigrating.
A quota system ensures Christian dominance of Bethlehem politics for now. Christians are assured eight seats on the 15-member City Council, including the posts of mayor and deputy mayor – an arrangement first approved by Yasser Arafat and now by Palestinian leader Mahmoud Abbas.
City Council, elected May 4, consists of five members from Hamas, four from Fatah, three from the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine, or PFLP, two independents and one from the militant Islamic Jihad.
Batarseh – affiliated with the formerly Marxist PFLP – chose Hamas as a partner in building his coalition, even though the secular Fatah might have seemed a better fit.
The respected ear, nose and throat surgeon said good governance is what matters.
He played down concerns that Hamas would try to impose its conservative social agenda on Bethlehem and its tourist-dependent economy. “I am a Catholic. I go to church. They (his Hamas allies) pray in the mosque every Friday. That has nothing to do with Bethlehem. I am sure we are going to serve this city, as Muslims and Christians,” he said.
Hassan Yousef, a Hamas leader in the West Bank, said the group would respect Christian tradition. “Hamas believes in persuasion. It does not believe in forcing people,” Yousef said.
Batarseh, who was sworn in Monday, has very mundane goals. His top priority is to build a slaughterhouse in the city; he also wants to fix up streets in the tourist areas and build a public library.
Outgoing mayor Hanna Nasser, an independent who was appointed by Arafat and served for seven years, said it’s possible to govern with Hamas, provided it displays tolerance and doesn’t try to ban the sale of alcohol in hotels and restaurants.
Yousef said Hamas would always urge people to shun alcohol, “but we are not going to carry a sword to fight people over that.”
Nasser, who presided over an all-Fatah council, said Bethlehem’s biggest problem is the economic downturn from four years of Israeli-Palestinian fighting. Per capita income has dropped from $2,700 a year in 2000 to less than $400 today; unemployment has risen to 50 percent and the city is running a big budget deficit because of revenue losses, he said.
Most residents are trapped in the city by Israeli travel restrictions and a towering wall that cuts off Bethlehem from nearby Jerusalem. Tourists trickle in, but generally don’t stay overnight.
Batarseh, a father of three grown children who all live in the United States, is only Bethlehem’s third mayor in three decades. Local elections were held in the West Bank in 1976, but further voting was blocked by Israel’s military government. He has been a U.S. citizen for 18 years,
naturalized with the help of his brothers, who live in the United States. He spent a few years in Sacramento, but returned to work in his clinic in Bethlehem.
He was vague about his ties to the PFLP, which has carried out attacks in Israel and opposed the interim peace accords of the 1990s. Asked about the faction’s Marxist past, he said he considers himself a socialist – and that such definitions mean little in local politics.
On Tuesday afternoon, after spending a few hours at City Hall, Batarseh returned to his clinic, which he will close within a month.
He said he was drafted into politics by local Christians, but acknowledged he might have won by default. Voters supported “anyone who was not with the (Palestinian) Authority or with Fatah,” he said.