You are most welcome to the holy city of Bethlehem. It is an honor for me, as the mayor of Bethlehem, to welcome you on your most recent trip to our occupied homeland, in order to achieve the two-state solution, Israel and Palestine, living side by side in peace and security. The nobility of your goal makes me extremely proud of your visit, and particularly because Bethlehem serves for many as an eye-opener.
Our biblical city could be one of the driving forces for our state. Just to give you an example: The distance between the Church of the Nativity in Bethlehem and the Church of the Holy Sepulcher in Jerusalem is only 10 kilometers, and a highway would link us with the Dead Sea in less than 20 minutes. However, Palestinian control in Bethlehem has been reduced to 13 percent of the district. The rest of our land has been taken either by Israeli settlers or by a foreign army. In fact, just as when Vice President Joe Biden visited back in 2010, some hours before your arrival, Israel approved hundreds of new housing units for settlements around our besieged city. This approval included units in Gilo and Har Homa, both built on our land with the goal of severing the historic connection between Bethlehem and Jerusalem.
Secretary Kerry, just as our city received Joseph and Mary more than 2,000 years ago, in 1948 Bethlehem received waves of refugees expelled from their homes in the Jerusalem area. Today they live mainly in three refugee camps in and around the city: Duheisha, al-Azza and Aida. Many have held onto the keys of their original homes for generations. Their keys, dear secretary, are not a symbol of revenge, but a call for humanity. They reflect an open wound that will only heal with the restoration of their dignity through the respect of their right to choose their future.
Secretary Kerry, we are a nation of refugees. We all have been victims of Israeli policies of forced displacement and replacement with foreign settlers by the State of Israel. This war crime must be stopped in order to give peace a chance. Today, while foreign settlers continue to flow into our district, thousands of daughters and sons of Bethlehem are spread all over the world, in places as far flung as Australia, Chile and the US, all of them denied right to return to their homeland. This is morally unacceptable.
Dear Secretary, we have heard about your economic projects for Palestine. They seem to be very positive and the people of Bethlehem are grateful for the attention you have given to our city. But please allow me to reiterate that no true economic development is possible as far as Israel continues its occupation of our country. As the World Bank confirmed a few weeks ago, we continue to lose billions of dollars because of the Israeli occupation.
Once we are free we are ready to develop our state just as successful Palestinian professionals have helped to develop the economies of wherever they have lived. Now it is their time to freely develop their own country without any foreign intervention. It is Palestine’s time to reach her potential, beginning with freedom of movement, and genuine sovereignty, including control over our international borders. In our case, Secretary Kerry, the same wall that you will come through to enter our city must fall in order to revitalize our historic ties with East Jerusalem, our national capital.
In Bethlehem we resist the occupation with love and hope. I hope you will have the chance to participate in one of the weekly Catholic masses that our community organizes at Cremisan; a time where we pray against the latest expropriation orders that will leave 58 Palestinian Christian families without access to their lands in one of the last green areas left in our district. I hope you might also find time to witness the steadfastness of the people of Walaja, a community that was originally displaced in 1948 and that today is being completely encircled by the Israeli annexation wall. Perhaps you might see the peaceful demonstrations of the people of Maasara, who are violently repressed by Israeli occupation forces, or the advocacy work of the people of Artas, Khirbet Nakhle and the southern Bethlehem area against new plans to expand the settlement of Efrat on their lands.
Dear Secretary Kerry, you are most welcome in Bethlehem, a city surrounded by 27 ever-expanding Israeli settlements, sealed off by an annexation wall built deep inside our district’s land. Even under these circumstances, we are working hard to look after our city. The restorations to the Nativity Church supported by UNESCO after Palestine obtained full membership in the organization, is another great example of how, in Bethlehem, we defy the occupation with love and creativity. Dear Secretary Kerry, you are most welcome to our city, please feel at home.
Vera Baboun, Mayor of Bethlehem