Plans for new infrastructure projects
Bethlehem’s new mayor, Anton Salman, apologizes twice for being late to our meeting. He was called away for an urgent meeting on Bethlehem’s water shortages which become more acute in the summer.
“We only have 65 liters of water per person per day which is half the average use,” Salman told The Media Line in an interview in his office in Bethlehem. “We are asking the Israeli side to give us more water.”
Just days after taking office, Salman hosted US President Donald Trump who met Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas in Bethlehem. Salman oversaw the complex security arrangements with both the US government and the Palestinian Authority.
Both Trump and Abbas were optimistic about the future, although since then there has been little evidence that either the Israelis or the Palestinians want to see a peace deal.
During the press conference, the American president said that “peace is a choice we must make each day, and the US is here to make that dream possible for young Jewish, Muslim and Christian children,” presumably referring to children in Israel and the occupied Palestinian territory.
“I truly believe if Israel and the Palestinians can make peace, it will begin a process for peace in the Middle East,” Trump added. “Abbas assures me he is ready to work toward that goal in good faith, and (Israeli Prime Minister Binyamin) Netanyahu has promised the same. I look forward to working with these leaders toward a lasting peace.”
It is not the first time that Salman has negotiated with Israeli officials. In 2002 at the height of the second intifada, Israeli forces entered Bethlehem to arrest men they said had been involved in attacks on Israelis. Dozens of men fled into the Church of the Nativity and refused to leave. After a 39-day standoff that threatened Israel’s international image, Salman helped negotiate a deal in which the gunmen were exiled to Europe.
“The shooting and the pressure and the hunger during that time was a unique experience,” he said. “I learned how to control the situation and how to get people quiet. I think I benefited from the experience.”
Salman is a member of the National Palestinian Lawyers’ Association, and currently chairs Bethlehem’s Antonianum Charity Organization. He is the attorney of the Custodian of the Holy Land.
His voting list “We Are All Bethlehem” won 8 out of 15 seats in Bethlehem’s mayoral election held in May. He is a Roman Catholic and his deputy mayor is a member of the Greek Orthodox sect.
Christians are a minority in Bethlehem after many years of emigration. Today there are about 12,000 Christians and 20,000 Muslims in the city that is known as the town of Jesus’ birth. Salman says that his first priority is infrastructure projects for his city. Bethlehem needs new roads and tunnels, as well as an updated water system.
Bethlehem has also been chosen as the capital for Arab culture in 2020, a designation that could bring more visitors to the city. Average tourism to Bethlehem is 2.5 million tourists a year, but many of those tourists come for just a few hours from Israel. Mayor Salman says he would like to see many more tourists coming and staying longer.