Tuesday started with a tour of the Church of the Holy Nativity in Bethlehem. It was good to have a Palestinian guide, Mustafa. All too often pilgrims are bused into Bethlehem to visit the holy site as Israel tries to corner the tourism market. Thankfully, many pilgrims do still stay in the city and provide a welcome boost to the Palestinian economy. As Mustafa explained, in 2012 UNESCO listed the site of the church as Palestine.
The church has three separate crosses outside which denote the Greek, Armenian and Vatican control of the church. There are 3 different areas in the church, one for Greek Orthodox, one for Catholic worship and one for the Armenian church.
On the other side of Manger Square at the Bethlehem Municipality offices we have an appointment to see Mr Anton Salman, the Mayor of Bethlehem. We also met the General director of the Municipality, Anton Marcos. The Mayor welcomed our visit, saying Bethlehem needs to work more with England and encouraged the Kennington Bethlehem Link to propose a formal twinning between Kennington and Bethlehem.
Anton Marcos added, “We are against the Israeli occupation of our land, but we are willing to live side by side.”
A positive meeting then and we were grateful for some of the Mayor’s time as we knew that he had a busy schedule. On the way out we bumped into Leila Sansour who was on her way to her meeting with the Mayor. Leila was the director of ‘Open Bethlehem’, the first film that the Kennington Bethlehem link showed at the Cinema Museum.
Lunchtime didn’t take us far away from Manger Square. The falafel from Afteem was the best many of us had ever eaten.
After lunch there was another important meeting for the Kennington Bethlehem Link. Archbishop Sumner School in Kennington has formed a link with Dar el Kalima of Bethlehem, so we paid a visit to the Head Teacher Tony Nassar. It is a Lutheran school of 393 students founded in 1860.
Unlike the Palestinian schools in Jerusalem Dar el Kalima is free to teach the curriculum of the Palestinian Authority. They teach English from kindergarten and the children go on to Peace Education classes as they progress at school. Mr Nassar reiterated his hope for peace for the Palestinian people and spoke about his memories of the 2002 intifada, when Israeli soldiers came into the school and children would often arrive in tears. Anton himself had been arrested without charge when he was 16.
Sarah Hopkins of Archbishop Sumner School in Kennington spent the next day at Dar el Kalima and we all hope for a good link between the 2 schools.
Our next meeting took us closer to the sharp end of the conflict. Aida Refugee Camp, which dates back to 1948, is hemmed in by the separation wall and has suffered ongoing incursions by the IDF (Israeli Defence Force). We saw a hard hitting presentation by Anas Abu Srour. He then gave us a tour of the camp where unemployment runs at 40/50% among the men.
From a rooftop overlooking the camp, the wall and the open land beyond, Anas talked of the picnics they would take as a children, before the wall was built, among the olive trees that were now unreachable from Aida. We also saw the furniture factory, cut off by the wall, where 300 jobs had been lost.
As we looked over at the IDF watchtowers we heard of a report from Berkeley University that found Aida is the world’s most susceptible community to tear gas attacks. We had even seen footage of a tear gas canister landing in the school playground. 120 gas canisters had been found in the school playground in 1 day. At the time of the report Aida suffered around 3 tear gas attacks each week. Once the report surfaced the attacks reduced to around 1 a week.
We walked through the winding streets of Aida past murals of martyred children and bullet-holed walls, passing by the football pitch which is run by the Aida Youth Center. We reached the offices of the Aida Popular Committee, elected by locals, where we met Saeeda Alazza and Mohammed Abu Srour. They explained how badly the US funding cuts had affected Aida, with UNWRA increasingly unable to provide educational and medical services.
On a hopeful note they told us of their worldwide appeal to raise funds for their Youth Center.