Bethlehem Mayor Victor Batarseh: Preserving a Palestinian identity

This week, UNESCO’s World Heritage Committee is considering the first bid for a World Heritage site in the Palestinian territories at Bethlehem’s Church of the Nativity, which marks the birthplace of Jesus Christ and hosts some of the most sacred Christmas masses in the world. Inclusion of the church, revered by all believers, and its surrounding pilgrimage route on the prestigious list would ensure protection of the holy site and preserve a key element of Palestine’s cultural and historical identity. But even as this happy deliberation occurs, a new resolution in the U.S. Congress, and the continued failure to achieve a workable peace in our region, threatens our very identity as a people.

Bethlehem is my hometown. Situated in the West Bank, we are Palestine’s top tourist destination due to our religious significance across the globe. We have always been proud of our diversity. Few in America and Europe might realize that Jesus and Mary are revered by all believers of both Christianity and Islam. To be recognized as a World Heritage site would be a testament to the ability of Church of the Nativity to stand above the political and religious differences that have long vexed discussion of the so-called Israeli-Palestinian peace process.

Sadly, a recent action in the United States has endangered the preservation of our identity. A newly passed amendment to an appropriations bill by the Senate Appropriations Committee, initially proposed by Sen. Mark Kirk (R-Ill.) and referred to as the Kirk Amendment, seeks to not only limit Palestinian claims to statehood, but also the entire identity of Palestinian refugees. By no longer recognizing second- or third-generation descendants and limiting the definition of Palestinian refugee to anyone displaced between 1946 and 1948, more than 4 million Palestinians will be denied refugee status and crucial humanitarian assistance from the United Nations Relief and Works Agency (UNRWA). Refusing descendants access to their ancestral history and cultural identity by removing this status is tantamount to a denial of the suffering of the Palestinian people.

This threat to our identity is worsened by the fact that Palestine remains occupied by Israel. The State of Israel and the Palestinians share claims over the same area of land; however, Israel is a recognized state. The Palestinian people remain a nation without a homeland. Forced segregation in the West Bank and the systemic oppression of Palestinians — including unequal access to public education, availability of land, marriage laws, employment or discriminatory housing access — creates a situation former U.S. President Carter referred to as “apartheid.”

In the absence of statehood, millions of Palestinians have been forced to leave Palestine and live as refugees in foreign lands; the rest are living in limited sections of Palestine. We believe the Jewish people, long persecuted throughout history, deserve a homeland. But we also believe our suffering can end and our dignity and identity as a people can only be fully realized and safeguarded with our own state. Recent polls show a majority of both Israelis and Palestinians prefer a two-state solution over any other solution as a means of resolving the conflict.

The challenge is to meet the debate affirmatively, not in the same cycle of anger and confrontation that has plagued discussion of the issue in the past.

As Palestinians suffer, cut off from work, family, opportunity and home, some become dangerously marginalized. The internal Palestinian conflict undermines our aspiration for national unity. At the same time, Israel’s democratic identity is threatened by the ongoing occupation and the control of the Palestinian people.

As Palestinians heal and make new efforts to create a unified political process, we once again turn our dreams to statehood. Only statehood can give us the powerful sense of national identity and common purpose we need to achieve our potential as a people. Only statehood can establish the political and civil equality that eludes us. Only statehood can end the Palestinian refugee crisis.

Ultimately, the resolution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is a matter to be settled by the Israelis and the Palestinians. Bethlehem wants to stand as an example of the power of people of good will to overcome the past and seize the future. Whether or not the Church of the Nativity is recognized for its cross-cultural and historical value as a World Heritage site, it is my sincere hope that our historic spirit of diversity, tolerance and inclusion will serve as a lesson taken up by those with the power to restart the process toward two states living in peace.

Dr. Victor Batarseh is mayor of Bethlehem.