You can watch Open Bethlehem on Vimeo.
Below is the excerpt of Open Bethlehem about Rachel’s Tomb, shown during the event.
Leila Sansour is a Palestinian/British filmmaker with more than 24 years of experience working in television as a producer, director and writer. She is best known for her two feature documentaries released across cinemas in the UK and internationally to a high critical acclaim- “Jeremy Hardy vs The Israeli Army” 2003 and “Open Bethlehem” 2014. Before moving into independent films, Leila worked as a producer on Al Jazeera’s leading documentary series “Encounter in Exile” and made several award winning shorts. She holds a masters degree in philosophy and fluently speaks Arabic, English, Russian and French.
She has worked as a consultant on a number of media projects with the UN and IFES and still freelances as a news producer with ITN news in the UK.
Vincent Fean chairs the board of trustees of the Balfour Project. He’s a retired member of the British Diplomatic Service: Consul-General, Jerusalem, between 2010 and 2014. He’s also been Ambassador to Libya and High Commissioner to Malta.
Sir Vincent Fean:
It’s a pleasure to be with you, Leila, on the Balfour Project webinar. May I ask you to say hello and to introduce the clip from your film Open Bethlehem that we will then show?
Welcome everyone. A few words about myself and this film that you will see an excerpt from. I come from Bethlehem. I grew up there. Maybe like many people who live and grow up in a small town, when I was a teenager I felt this town was too small, conservative, provincial, and I want to leave it. I explored the world. I lived in cosmopolitan cities. I settled in London, but around the year 2000, 2002, I started feeling like many people do, the need to go back to reconnect with home. When you become an adult and you are yourself ready to build something, to create, that’s when home starts calling you. And sadly for me, when Bethlehem started calling me again, when Palestine started calling me again, that’s when Israel was about to start building the Wall.
While I was in that spirit of, I want to build my country, my country was being actually destroyed in front of my eyes. As a filmmaker, one of the things that I felt I could do at the very least is to document the building of the Wall, to create a document, a historic document, of a development that was likely to change the face of Bethlehem radically for the worst. I thought I might spend one or two years doing it, but as it happens, I actually spent 10 years both documenting the building of the Wall in Bethlehem, and then also mounting a campaign, alongside many other people who were trying to fight against the building of the Wall. The excerpt that you will see today is part of a film that I made at the end of these 10 years. The film itself is 90 minutes long. The excerpt is eight minutes. It is specifically about the area of Rachel’s Tomb, which is an area that is situated at the entrance to Bethlehem. I will just leave you to watch it.
Excerpt of Open Bethlehem played here.
Thank you, Leila, for making the film, and for introducing it to us today. In the chat we will be sharing how to access the film which is well worth doing. Can I ask you about life in Bethlehem today: the Wall, which is now built around Cremisan as well, the effect of the occupation, COVID, the lockdown and the empty hotels of Bethlehem?
It should come as no surprise that the current situation, being under military occupation for decades now, the stifling of the city’s economy that was augmented even by the building of the Wall with COVID today, the situation is really dire for people in Bethlehem. It is very sad for me to say that because in a strange, ironic way, during the making of my film, I thought a lot about the history of Bethlehem, and researched its history. I realised how much potential the city has. People may underestimate the amount of energy and also potential, Bethlehem being such an important city, historically and religiously for so many people in the world. Whenever we had the chance to be open, to trade, to define our own history, to define our own future, Bethlehem thrived in a way that is very difficult to describe. At the end of 19th century and early 20th century it’s quite mind blowing the amount of wealth, experience, worldliness that existed in Bethlehem.
It was so sad for me to be reading about this history, looking at some of the pictures and footage from that time, and seeing just how it is possible to create a manmade disaster that stifles such a wonderful place that could have been a beacon to all the region around it. Bethlehem was such a successful place as a city that has a diverse religious community. It was always a very comfortable shared, happily shared space by Muslim and Christian Palestinians.
A place welcoming the world. We have so many international institutions because of the importance of Bethlehem to the world. We had so many visitors. The city was able to receive them, welcome them, rub shoulders with so many different nations. And so the potential is huge. And yet here we are, we find ourselves today, genuinely, reduced to a ghetto.
In the past, even at the early stage of the establishment of the Palestinian Authority, you’d find that the people of Bethlehem, as opposed to many other cities in the West Bank, did not work that much in Israel. We had enough work in our city. Today, with the building of the Wall, with the stifling of the tourism industry … 70% of Bethlehem’s economy depends on tourism. You can imagine what it means every time there is unrest. Every time there are closures. We really suffer. The whole economy comes to a standstill.
Today, unfortunately, the COVID situation is not different again for the city which depends on freedom of movement. Bethlehem got COVID very early on. Soon after China’s lock down, we locked down in Bethlehem, because we had some visitors from Greece. The first COVID case was detected and the whole city went into lockdown, partly also because we don’t have currently the capacity of healthcare that would be needed to look after a population under duress from a viral infection.
We have a tiny hospital that deals with COVID cases. We have four ventilators. I think Poland donated six more recently. We have maybe just ten ICU units in the whole of the town. So it is a real challenge.
After the building of the Wall, many Bethlehemites started needing to work in Israel. That means we need permits for them – very difficult to obtain. Today, with COVID, the permits have become even more difficult. So a city that does not have a way of sustaining itself internally cannot even easily seek economic support, even on the very basic level, even when people are willing to do manual labour in Israel, unfortunately, even that has become difficult.
We keep thinking about how to move forward. Everybody’s looking forward to the possibility of a vaccine to end this crisis.
Now, Christmas is upon us. This is a big time for Bethlehem. This is both a big celebratory time for Bethlehem, as well as a big injection to the Bethlehem economy, because this is when people come and visit. This year, we don’t even know whether the traditional ceremony of the Patriarch’s procession into Bethlehem, how it’s going to take place. The Latin Patriarch of Jerusalem has just been diagnosed with COVID. A lot of people at the Patriarchate have been diagnosed with COVID. So we really don’t know even whether that will happen. There are rumours that Bethlehem might go into a curfew mode beyond lockdown. Currently we have a 10 day lockdown because, like everywhere else, there was a loosening of the initial lockdown, then COVID spread again, then another lock down, and there is a chance that after the 26th of December, we might go into a complete curfew in town.
I remember the visits on Christmas Eve by the Latin Patriarch and the Anglican Archbishop of Jerusalem. That gate that you showed in the film opens once a year for the convoy of those clergy and their flock to get into Bethlehem from Jerusalem. Then it shuts again for 364 days. And I remember that sharp turn to the left before the Wall, before the gate, to the checkpoint. In my time there were protests by Palestinians – and by Israelis who understand the need for equal rights – against the extension of the Wall through Cremisan, neighbouring Bethlehem. One of the ways to protest peacefully was to hold an open air mass at Cremisan on a Friday afternoon. I used to go now and again to the mass. Hundreds of people came to demonstrate by their silence and their devotion, by their prayer, their opposition to the building of the Wall. And sadly, it’s been completed around Cremisan and it separates land from people: a very depressing aspect of the occupation.
The Balfour Project is focused on Britain’s role in the Holy Land, and what’s now Israel, Palestine, and trying to raise awareness of the role that Britain played. Very sadly, some of the policy actions of the Israeli government are copies of what was done under the Mandate: house demolitions and so on. The scale now is much bigger, but the example was set in the British Mandate.
When Britain left Palestine in 1948, about 21% of the population were Christian in the whole of Israel/Palestine. Now it’s less than 2% and in Gaza, less than half a percent. Could you say where the diaspora has gone, where the people are that your father grew up with in Bethlehem? And something about the importance of the remaining Christian community in Bethlehem in terms of hospitals, education…?
The fact that we are losing the Christian community so fast, to the point that many churches have been warning that they may cease to be sustainable as a community, within my generation, that’s quite an alarming development for all of us. The exodus of Christians from Palestine started early on with the drafting into the army of the Ottoman times. My great, great grandfather migrated, as many did, at the time from Palestine taking ships from Marseille to the Americas usually. That’s where they were aiming for. Many people from Bethlehem have ended up in different countries, particularly in South America, in Chile. It was quite a difficult and dangerous journey to make. So they were quite daring to even attempt it. Once the community was established there, every new unrest that happened, Palestinians from Bethlehem and Christians from Bethlehem found it so easy to join their relatives who were already established abroad. So many left to South America. We have people in Australia, North America including Canada, some in Europe – recently, Sweden – and so many countries around the world.
There is a very large Palestinian diaspora, larger than the population in Palestine. It is an important feature of the Palestinian identity. Palestine has been a very successful entity in terms of harmony among its communities. I think we had all the ingredients to build a very strong democratic state, that could be an example to a region that really struggles to stand on its feet. But we have been undermined. And the example of Christians would have been a wonderful example of a country in the Middle East that can live with its diverse communities and thrive because of it.
It could have been a celebratory model of diversity in the Middle East. Apart from that the Christians bring an element of a bridge to the Western world. There’s a sense of a greater openness, exchange of ideas. There’s a great interest in Bethlehem. So these are dynamic centres that create a dynamic forward-looking people. And I think that instinct existed in places like Bethlehem.
Muslims see Jesus as a prophet so in fact, the Nativity Church is shared by both communities. The fact that the city’s economy depends on tourism means that Muslims work very closely alongside Christians to welcome pilgrims and to run the economy. So it also taught both communities, not just from an idealistic point of view, but from a very practical point of view, how to act together. We had to live and work together and that’s actually a positive.
What a shame if we cannot sustain ourselves in the city where when pilgrims come, they’re not coming to Disneyland, but they coming to a living church that has practised and worshipped in this place from the time of Christ, so that we are a living document to the tradition that carried on from Biblical times.
It’s important that the Church of the Nativity should not become a museum. I hope, as you do, that the vaccine works and in the second half of next year the pilgrims can return to the Holy sites in Jerusalem and Bethlehem. Here are some figures. The Catholics are not the biggest Christian community. The Greek Orthodox is the biggest. But the Latin Patriarchate runs 118 schools, which complements the work of the Palestinian Authority with the state schools; several hospitals – the Sovereign Order of Malta, St John of Jerusalem in Malta, helps with the maternity hospital in Bethlehem. There are a couple of universities founded and run by Christians, the Lutheran University and the University of Bethlehem.
The numbers of Christians to make those things work is dwindling, because the economic opportunities, and the political horizon are both bleak. Palrstinian parents have to decide where their kids will go and how well they will live. Everybody wants their kids to lead a better life than they did. And that’s why activists like you and why charities like the Balfour Project are here, to try to ensure equal rights, equal opportunity, and the chance for the people who live where they live to carry on doing that and to invest in their own future.
I know your late father was integral to the conception and the life of Bethlehem university. It is run by the Christian brothers. The majority of the staff and the majority of the students are Muslim. Could you tell us about the university and its role, and your father and his work there?
It was always thought in ancient times that every self-respecting city had to have a temple and an institution of higher learning. Bethlehem has one of the most important temples in the world, the Nativity Church. My father’s very great ambition, that of many people at the time, was for Bethlehem to have a really great institution of higher learning. I witnessed the very beginning, when people started building Bethlehem University. It was a very challenging undertaking because building a university under military occupation meant constantly clashing with the military administration who didn’t want Palestinians to organise collectively or be collectively organised on any level. So it was very difficult for the university to have licences, to have bank accounts, to have anything.
The university ran almost like a maverick affair at the very beginning. It is so heartening to see it stand on its feet today. Although not without great challenges. Today the university provides high quality education to more than 3000 people a year, and I think building towards being able to cater for 4,000 students. It has a very large number of subjects as well, it has a medical department, a nursing department, which is trying to turn into a centre that might be able to provide clinical help to the public. It’s focusing on applied sciences to work with our times and allow people to learn skills that will keep them in Bethlehem. That’s one of the big aims.
Unfortunately that is the tragedy: those who emigrate in the end are the people who have the funds to do it, or they are entrepreneurial. They start a business abroad, or they are very well educated, so they can find a job abroad. It’s sad that we have a very great brain drain out of Bethlehem. The university allows us to create a generation that has had its youth and its education and all the social connections built inside Bethlehem. And often these people end up staying and having a lot of loyalty to the city and to the idea of working towards building it. That’s very important: the civic pride, the sense of investment in the common good are very important instincts.
Institutions of learning, such as the university, are critical in building a society where people are invested in the community, invested in their cities, invested in the future of the town as a whole. I’m so delighted that so many people abroad also understand that and support it. There is a very strong and active network of friends of Bethlehem university, as well as the many other important networks that support Twinning and Friendship.
I visited Bethlehem university, and was much impressed. I’d like to salute now Professor Bart McGettrick, who is with us today. Bart chairs the International Board of Regents of Bethlehem University. There is a charity which I commend to you: Friends of Bethlehem University.
One of the hats which I’m proud to wear is to be the patron of the Britain Palestine Friendship and Twinning Network, about 35 groups in the United Kingdom linked to either Palestine as a whole or to a particular locality. So we have Dundee/Nablus, Hanwell/Sabastiya, Glasgow/Bethlehem, the Kennington/Bethlehem Link – an informal friendship group, which is strong and can grow. Anybody who wants to either join an existing group or work with local friends to create one, you need about 10 activists, people who will actually do something to form such a group. They are important – they show to Palestinian people that they are connected to the world. We have with us Tony Richardson from the Oxford/Ramallah Friendship Association – which successfully encouraged Oxford City Council to twin with Ramallah.
Leila, your description of Bethlehem as a light to the nations, it’s true. It will always be true. The idea that we can work to generate greater connectivity between the United Kingdom and Palestine is entirely benign. It’s a win-win, it’s a win for the British people, as well as a win for the Palestinian people.
The Balfour Project is trying to raise awareness. It is seeking to influence our Parliament. I would recommend to everybody writing to your MP, lobbying your MP. If whispering doesn’t work, shouting at your MP is a useful, positive activity in a democracy. What you said about the democratic instincts of the Palestinian people is entirely correct, Leila. The people I’ve met want to see elections, they want to see pluralism. They want to see Palestine as a beacon of democracy. And it can be that.
Coming back to the Balfour Project, we’re working in Westminster as best we can. In October, we had a big virtual conference on Jerusalem which concluded with a statement on Jerusalem, calling upon our Government to recognise the state of Palestine alongside Israel on ‘67 lines. That statement is going to Boris Johnson and Dominic Raab under the signature of 70 Parliamentarians and faith leaders, Christian and Muslim.
We’re trying to develop links in the rest of Europe, in Ireland and in mainland Europe, of Parliamentarians who care about equal rights and to attempt to bring them together, to have a discussion about how to be more effective in those national Parliamentarians, including our own, to make common cause. No one country, not even the United States, is going to resolve this conflict. It needs to be a collective effort of words matched with deeds. Those are some of the things we’re doing. The group of European Parliamentarians are writing to president-elect Biden to say he is not alone, that his instincts, which I think are sound, about addressing this problem – he will need to be encouraged to prioritise it – but his instincts are sound. The winding back of the misdeeds of his predecessor will be a challenge that I hope he will rise to. We are also saying that Europe can play its part, European nation states and the European Parliament and the European Union can play their part. These are some of the things that we’re trying to do.
Next May we’re planning another big virtual conference on the rule of law. The one thing that the Palestinians have, and that they will always have, is the rule of law. They have international law on their side. They are an occupied people. They have every right to seek their freedom from occupation, ending the occupation by peaceful means. The rule of law depends on the political will of our governments to implement that law. The law is known, but to implement it. The conference in May will be an attempt to focus on that, both generically on the rule of law itself, what it is, and secondly, on its application to this conflict.
Back to you, Leila, and the tricky question of where do we find hope? Where do we find sumud (steadfastness in Arabic)?
I find the whole concept of sumud a bit strange because in the end, what other options do Palestinians have? We are there, we have this identity. We have hopes for this country. We are invested in our cities. We are rooted in them. So Palestinians are going to continue trying to do the best by themselves and by their country and dream. We will continue dreaming. That’s not going to stop. And with the dream comes also action. I hope we will get better at it with time. Political maps often feel like they’re not going anywhere, but we know that they change. History shows that change is always happening and there’s all kinds of axes along which things might shift.
I hope that at some point within the European consensus, something will emerge that says it is absolutely a must to stabilise the Middle East. What goes on in the Middle East, doesn’t stay in the Middle East. It does spill over into the world around it. I cannot see a stable Middle East without resolving the Palestinian issue. Not even with all the agreements with the Gulf. I don’t see that it’s possible to achieve real stability without resolving the Palestinian issue.
The truth is the issue is resolvable. We have a blueprint for the solution. It’s not beyond our reach. It’s very difficult, but at the same time, we know how we can move forward.
And we have international law on our side. One day international law will have stronger legs than it has today, sadly. We have to constantly try to strengthen it with everything we have as tools in our kit. I think one can hope. The new generation of young Jewish people might have different attitudes towards what they want to see Israel as. In America, a lot of young Jews who are joining other movements, like climate change and other causes, suddenly find out about Palestine as part of learning about other issues and because they are aligning their interests and aspirations with other groups. There could be a surprise or shift in the political map coming from places we don’t quite know.
We should be alert to all these changes, and never overlook any opportunities that open before our eyes. We should really be careful to understand what could shift, and put our energy to try and seize the opportunity to help that shift come about. And it can only happen if we continue working, even as we wait, even as the map is not clear, but we continue to work. We continue to build strong alliances that are able to speak for a Palestinian interest in Britain and other European countries and America that are able to lobby.
That’s why I think the Balfour Project is a wonderful project. We have to maintain a meaningful link with the British political establishment. That link has to be fed and grown in order for that to be a meaningful discourse at some point, if the opportunity arises. We have a new American administration. We should be careful looking at what this administration gives, what it might open in front of us, even if it allows us to take small steps, but we should always be taking these steps. There are concrete, practical steps that change the map a little bit for us in our favour. We should always seize that. That is where the hope comes from.
What do you think about the new American administration? What is achievable?
The letter I mentioned is an attempt to focus attention on the conflict. The challenge is not the goodwill of Biden and Kamala Harris. It’s about their willingness to actually face Israel. They will face Israel on the issue of Iran and the nuclear deal. They will seek to reenter the nuclear deal with Iran. Mr. Netanyahu doesn’t want that. What can they do to encourage an end to settlements? Settlement expansion is killing the prospect of an independent sovereign state of Palestine in Gaza, the West Bank and East Jerusalem, which is the hope and the aim of the Balfour Project. So back to Biden, we need to ensure that he prioritises this issue. The appointment of Antony Blinken as Secretary of State is good. He’s an experienced diplomat. He knows the map. He knows the terrain. But it will come back to political will. And I would like our own Government, because the Balfour Project starts at home, to encourage the United States, not to act alone (in the past, far too often, the United States has acted alone). The US is not in a position to be a totally honest broker in this conflict, because of the influence of the Israeli lobby and of the Israeli government on Capitol Hill. So the US should not seek to act alone. It should act with Europe. It should act with like-minded nations to show that the current trend towards inequality, which was in the last speech by John Kerry, the last good Secretary of State of the United States, back in 2016 before the Trump administration came in. Separate and unequal was his prediction of Israel. It need not be that way, but it needs the international community to form up with one voice to persuade Israeli electors that their leadership should change tack.
I salute at this point Vera Baboun, who is with us as a guest today – the previous mayor of Bethlehem. You are very welcome Vera. I greatly respect everything that you have done to keep the candle burning in Bethlehem and for Bethlehem around the world.
In terms of practical support for Bethlehem and for Palestine, we’ve mentioned the Friends of Bethlehem University and Bart. There is also a charity dedicated to keeping Christians where they were born. It’s called Friends of the Holy Land. We have Peter Rand and Brendan Metcalfe with us from Friends of the Holy Land. They help Christians, the very few Christians in Gaza, with work support. They support the School of Joy in Bethlehem, a school for handicapped children. They are a force for good.
There is also Hadeel, which is an offshoot from the Church of Scotland from the St Andrew’s Church in Jerusalem, and also up in Edinburgh selling Palestinian products, including products specifically from Bethlehem. Embrace the Middle East is another good charity which sells Palestinian products. When there is no tourism, going online to buy Palestinian products is the way to go.
There is Medical Aid for Palestinians, of which I’m a trustee. Run by Aimee Shalan, MAP does great good in Gaza, the West Bank and in Lebanon, in the camps. PalMusic, we have Heba Zafiriou-Zarifi here, who put on a great show about a week ago of Palestinian music, not for the first time.
We have talked about buying Palestinian products, tourism and pilgrimages and travel to Palestine. Those are all valid ways of offering practical support, in addition to the idea of twinning and friendship.
Leila, here is my passport to Bethlehem, which I was honoured to receive from you a couple of years ago. Tell us about Open Bethlehem – not just the film, but also the campaign and what people can do to support Bethlehem.
After working on a film to document the Wall. I realised this wasn’t enough. So I soon started a campaign. Our hope was to work with a group of people. We coordinated with the Government at the time and the President’s office to try and maintain the public diplomacy effort, to try and remind people what’s happening in Bethlehem. Bethlehem has a way of living in people’s imagination and hearts. We wanted to remind them, by using Bethlehem as a microcosm, as a window into Palestine, what the whole of Palestine is experiencing. We also sought to explain to people around the world just how much human heritage we are losing by having Bethlehem vandalised in this way.
The idea of the passport emerged as a way of saying to people that Bethlehem is a city whose heritage belongs to everybody in the world, and it should be everybody’s. It should be our collective effort to help safeguard the city and everything that it stands for. It was a way of building a network of ambassadors for Bethlehem around the world, and you are a very good one, Vincent. I’m always quite heartened by your dynamism. Not every former Consul General to an area does what you do, and you somehow became a Consul for the Palestinians, which I am heartened by.
I toured very widely with the film, showing it to more than 300,000 people face to face, not only online. This Christmas, we are trying to have a digital campaign targeting certain American states using some clever new marketing strategies to try and reach out to communities that maybe need to hear about the reality of Bethlehem.
We screened the film in Congress, which in itself was a bit of a project because not only did we screen the film, but I spent two weeks lobbying Congress. This reminded me of the derivation of the word lobbying, because it comes from literally spending your time in the lobbies of the American Congress, which I did – meeting different congresspeople, trying to persuade them to form a delegation, to come and visit Bethlehem on a fact-finding tour. There was a lot of interest at the time. One day we might be able still to put together this fact-finding delegation to come from Congress.
The situation is changing all the time within American politics. It can be difficult to sustain these efforts. Many of us fire on our passion and commitment to the cause. We have very limited resources. At the moment, as Open Bethlehem, we try and focus our attention on lobbying efforts or advocacy efforts, because this is what we know how to do. It is the sphere in which we can operate without needing huge resources. So this is what we’re doing now, and I’m going to focus on now.
The time has come for some questions.
We have had many questions. I’ll be passing on the chat comments to Leila and Vincent. So they’ll read all of your comments and your questions.
From Magan Singodia, what do the churches say to what is going on in Bethlehem, especially certain sections of the evangelical church that seemed to support Israel so strongly?
We talked a couple of days ago about the statement from the bishops on the ground. There is on the one hand, hard power. There are the interests of the churches themselves, the way they are aligned politically, like licensing – within Palestine the Israeli government controls how the churches receive licences or denied licences to work, to do things. Churches around the world are institutions controlled by certain processes and forces that are hard forces, if you wish. At the same time, we are all humans and in a way, it is surprising how much humans are capable of following their convictions and holding to their values and virtue. Sometimes virtue does play a role and we should not forget that.
It is important to reach out in a personal way to politicians, to churches as well, even those who currently do not support us. During my tour in the United States, I spoken to a lot of groups who not only don’t support our cause, but really are invested in a completely different way forward. I screened my film once to a group that greeted me with a statue of the Virgin Mary who was carrying the Israeli flag. You learn from experiences like these, how, with some patience, with commitment, with your own humanity and by believing in theirs, you might help them understand. You come to them, not with animosity, but rather with a sense of trust that, in the end, they will see through things
We have the angels on our side, as I always say, we are not lying. We are showing something that would break anybody’s heart if they cared to look at it. It’s very important that we keep doing it. The other challenge is that we don’t have the resources, unfortunately, to go beyond the idea of stirring up somebody’s heart. Once you stir up hearts, then you need to try and consolidate this into an effort that is translatable into political action. And sadly to translate the movement of people’s hearts into political action takes means. And you’re talking about big institutions.
To make them move with you, you need lots of resources to engage them on a daily basis. Many of them are willing and sometimes just take the baton and run by themselves and do things, which is maybe sometimes all we can do is, to inspire them and ask them to work as hard as they can to support our cause. It would be good if we had a more consolidated effort, better designed to give these people logistical support as well, and coordinate among these groups to translate this emotion into greater action.
You mentioned the annual visit of a group of Catholic bishops from Europe and America led by Bishop Declan Laing, a patron of the Balfour Project. They go every January. This coming January because of COVID, it’s going to be virtual. But normally they visit Gaza, the West Bank and Israel. They produced a communique in January this year which says we should listen to the cries of pain of the Palestinian people. In the UK, particularly, but around the world, wherever the bishops came from, their countries should recognise the state of Palestine on ‘67 lines. There should be no economic cooperation with illegal settlements. It’s a strong statement. Getting that kind of statement widely known, into the mindsets of the people, is hard. Getting coverage is hard, but it’s necessary. We have to keep on trying. On the question that Magan asked originally about, I think probably the evangelical community in the US, Christian Zionists. We are going to have a talk on the 24th of March by Reverend Munther Isaac from the Lutheran Church in Bethlehem. He’s going to speak to us on the 24th of March on this webinar about Christian Zionism. The political aspect of Christian Zionism is troubling because it seems to ignore the existence of the Palestinian people, endorsing the old myth that it was a land without a people for a people without a land. Well, there were people on the land and there are people on the land and coexistence is what we need, not a winner takes all attitude.
Munther is a pastor of one of the Protestant churches in Palestine. They organise a conference yearly called Christ at the Checkpoint. There are evangelical Christian Palestinians who are becoming increasingly outspoken against the occupation. They are taking with them part of the evangelical community in the United States. That’s very important. Such a small group as the evangelical Christian Palestinian community is currently playing a disproportionate role in educating Christian Evangelicals in the United States about what it means to be walking in their shoes. That is creating a lot of challenge for both the precepts of the theology for evangelical Christians in America that somehow their positions seem to mean bringing about the downfall of people who share their mission in the Holy Land. They should be encouraged. I have a lot of hope that they might become an even stronger voice for Palestine.
This question has come from Fatimah Johnson about the clip that we showed earlier. She says beautiful/devastating clip… . Do you see your film as a way of breaking the psychological wall that the physical wall has created?
Films and human stories are a key thing to share. They are your first calling card, because you can’t open a conversation without first opening somebody’s heart to your story, to your plight. This is why I made the film. I wouldn’t have spent years making the film if I didn’t think it will be something that can be shareable, and that would give people a new pair of eyes from the comfort of their own homes.
So we continue screening the film. And we encourage people to screen the film as well. They can get in touch with us. We screen it online too. I also am happy to speak to the group afterwards. It’s the work that we continue doing.
We’ve got a question from Gillian Mosely – my impression last time I was there is that the Israeli companies have succeeded in dominating much of the tourism in the West Bank, largely busing people in for the day. To what extent is this true of Bethlehem?
Let’s look on the bright side, there will be travel in 2021. But when people go to the Holy Land, they should make a point of ensuring, and this applies to pilgrims and tourists, that they stay in a West Bank hotel, or an East Jerusalem hotel, if they want to support the Palestinians. There are hotels in East Jerusalem, the Ambassador and others, which are Palestinian. In Bethlehem, they’re all Palestinian. Supporting the Palestinian economy by putting your money where your political opinion may be is the right thing to do. There is a problem: the most obvious tour operators, the most well-equipped tour operators, the ones that can advertise most, are likely to be Israeli.
For the people who are on this call, I would imagine you would value the opportunity to meet Palestinians, the opportunity to talk, if it’s about Christians, to the living stones of Christianity, through a pilgrimage or through visits, organised visits. I strongly recommend it. What that means is finding Palestinian tour operators of whom there are many, but they don’t come up first on Google.
Israel is the occupier. That means it really holds our lives in its hands. It controls our economy, controls access and therefore it also controls some of the most important things, like the tourism industry. Unfortunately it is up to people who are travelling into Palestine to try and think of ways of supporting the Palestinian economy, of staying in a Palestinian hotel, to use Palestinian tour operators.
This question is from Nina Zomaya, who is with us today, from Bethlehem living in London. What is the Palestinian Authority doing to stop the damage to our beautiful town of Bethlehem? Are they involved at all?
We should look inside. I really don’t like when one is not critical of one’s own actions and oneself, we should analyse where we are going wrong? What we should do more? We should demand of our leaders much more. At the same time, I’m not sure exactly, when a city is generally being devastated by a wall and settlement building and the stifling of the economy, which are all massively exacted by an occupying force, how you could then draw a line and start really demanding things of your own government.
I would love to get to a place where I can just forget about Israel and really start being very critical of my own government, how it operates, It would be good to hold our own politicians accountable, be real citizens in a real state.
At the moment, it’s so difficult to tell how to address that, how to address our leadership. Most of all, what I want from my leadership is to end the occupation. That’s what I want the leadership to focus on because we need an end to the control. We have not even begun breathing and start planning our future.
I was listening yesterday to the Palestinian ambassador to the UK, Dr Husam Zomlot, who’s doing a good job in reaching out to Parliament, reaching out to the media, reaching out to the many Palestinian groups in the UK. We talked earlier about Palestine as a beacon of democracy. It’s true. There need to be elections across Palestine – Gaza, West Bank, East Jerusalem – in 2021, somehow. I know the obstacles, but I don’t want to be fazed by the obstacles. There need to be elections. Foreign governments like ours need to give an undertaking in advance that we, the Western governments, will abide by the outcome. We didn’t do that in 2006. There’s a lesson for us from that and a lesson for politicians in Palestine to put aside their own rivalries and to ensure that the Palestinian people can speak, because when the Palestinian people speak as one, their voice is strong.
Pat Bryden comments that if the media took up the cause of Palestine, including films like Leila’s, in a real and sincere way, minds would change. [There was a Channel Four news piece that we put in the news section of our website.] There’s a taboo around the word Palestine at the moment. It seems in the media this must be changed – urgently. Thank you for your film and others, Leila, you are needed. A question comes from Jenny Tonge which follows on from this. Has Leila approached our TV channels, especially Channel Four, to see if they would show the film.
I have approached British TV. I haven’t been successful. It doesn’t mean that nobody will be. Sometimes it’s the mood of the commissioner. Sometimes it’s editorial guidelines . I think British TV is very jittery or uncomfortable having a Palestinian speak about Palestine. I’m not easily put off, you know, I do try. They tell you, “You have to understand my position. We get a lot of criticism or flak for doing something like this.” But it means that we have to try and come from different angles, package our story in different ways.
Although public opinion is shifting, the mainstream is being streamlined to be uncomfortable with the issue of Palestine, both the political establishment and the media. These are very massive institutions with which you can’t argue easily. We have to continue working to try and change them.
I agree. There is a huge distinction between anti-Semitism and legitimate criticism of the policies of a government that belongs to the OECD, belongs to the club of Europe, belongs to the West. There is a huge difference, which needs to be accentuated. We should and do abhor anti-Semitism, wherever it manifests itself. There is a difference between anti-Semitism and legitimate criticism of the actions of a government which is friendly with our Government. This is not Burma, not China, not Tibet. This is a friendly government with whom our Government is on the best of terms, but the conduct of the Occupation is mistaken and wrong; worse than mistaken. Therefore calling out that aspect of Israeli government policy is legitimate and is not to be misinterpreted or fudged as anti-Semitism.
Thank you, Leila, for bringing Bethlehem to the United Kingdom and further afield. Thank you to everybody with us today.