Anton Salman, the mayor of Bethlehem, in his first interview in 2018: starting from the “Siege of the Nativity church,” passing through Donald Trump’s declaration about Jerusalem as the capital of Israel, ending with the future of Palestine “struggling for our dignity, our rights, and our freedom” and asking the international community to put words into action.
You were one of the main characters during the siege of the Nativity church in Bethlehem. Can you please tell us more about those days?
It was the 2nd of April 2002, and I entered the church around 7.00 PM. Many of us thought that everything would have been solved in about one hour, but it was not true. We realized that we were stuck in the church, and it lasted for 38 days. The 39th day, on Thursday night, I went out of the church in order to negotiate with the Israeli forces, and they did not allow me to go back into the church after that. The rest of the story and the end is very well known.
Did you have any international influence during the siege concerning the organization of the resistance or did you operate alone?
Inside the church the international community did not have any role at all. I was responsible both for the organization inside the church, and outside the church for the negotiation with the Israelis. We were alone inside, with the Israeli forces outside.
Recently Donald Trump made an important assertion about Jerusalem. Why do you think he said that knowing that this assessment could only create instability and conflict in the fragile context of the Middle-East?
Simply because he wanted to keep the promises made in his propaganda to his followers and above all to the Israeli government, as well as preserve his chair in the White House. He knew that his decision could create troubles, but the Israeli support was, and is, fundamental for him and for the United States. Due to his decision, Trump has lost his position as a possible neutral intermediary in the peace process between Palestine and Israel, putting himself clearly on the side of Israel and against the state of Palestine. The peace process does not involve only Israel and Palestine anymore, but Palestine on one side, and Israel and the United States of America (especially the Trump administration) on the other side.
Do you personally think that Donald Trump could in the future modify or cancel his announcement about the status of Jerusalem?
Actually he might change his assessment, but only with strong international pressure. So far there is no pressure on him to cancel or review his announcement and I think it will not happen. The international community is not recognizing Trump’s decision, and this is very good for us, we see that it is only Israel and the U.S. that are supporting this decision, but for us this international influence is not enough. Europe and the rest of the international community have to officially recognize Palestine as a state on the borders of 1967, with Jerusalem its capital.
During this Christmas holiday, Bethlehem was full of tourists visiting holy places such as the Church of Nativity, the Milk Cave, but also “political sites” such as the Wall that separates Israel and Palestine. What are your goals for this legislature both regarding the political point of view and for the city of Bethlehem and its citizens?
Politically speaking, as Palestinians, we want our independence, our freedom, our human dignity along with the will to build our state on the borders of 1967, with Jerusalem our capital.
Regarding the city of Bethlehem, in the next years I want to develop the city, to make my citizen’s lives easier with new infrastructure, new streets, and renovate and rehabilitate existing infrastructure. This will automatically increase the number of tourists visiting the city and its spectacular spots.
Recently Benjamin Netanyahu asked for the annexation of settlements in the West Bank. What do you think about this and about the general politics of the Israeli prime minister?
All the Netanyahu procedures and claims are against the peace process. He is not interested in any peace process. He is always working to strengthen the status of the occupying colonies, and this is part of his game against Palestine.
How do you see the future of Palestine?
Nobody knows what will happen, but our hope is to end the Israeli occupation as soon as possible. For that we need the interference of the international community in recognizing Palestine as a state. Without this interference it will be difficult to end the occupation and to work on a real peace process. They always speak about the two-state solution on the borders of 1967, but good speeches and words have limited importance. What is very important for us, and for peace in the region, is the implementation of these speeches and we ask to the international community to influence Israel to accept the two-state solution. This is the most important role that the international community should and must play.
Anton Selman has been the mayor of the city of Bethlehem since May 2017. Interview conducted by Fabio Monni.
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