US Mayor Article

Burlington Mayor Visits Palestinian Refugee Camp During Jerusalem Conference of Mayors

May 15, 2000


I was honored to be among 54 mayors from 34 nations attending the 20th Annual Jerusalem Conference of Mayors in April. The U.S. Conference of Mayors  was well represented by nine mayors and Dave Gatton, our Deputy Director.

The underlying theme of the Conference was the challenge—and the progress being made—in resolving ancient conflicts among the people and religions of the region. The U.S. delegation gained unique insights into the Palestinian-Israeli conflict when we visited Burlington's sister city of Bethlehem. I believe this was the first time in the history of the Jerusalem Mayors Conference that mayors have visited a community under the jurisdiction of the Palestinian National Authority.

On the threshold of the new millennium, Bethlehem is keenly aware of the legacy it has inherited as a spiritual center. Our delegation visited Manger Square, the Church of the Nativity, and the birthplace of Jesus Christ.

Most moving—and revealing of the complexities of the Middle East peace process—was our visit to the Dheisheh Refugee Camp. This so-called camp, one-half of a square kilometer in area, is "home" to 10,000 inhabitants. These refugees were relocated from Palestinian towns and villages in 1948. They told us, as they told the Pope who visited the camps just weeks before we did, "Half a century is more than enough."

Resolving the refugee issue is but one of the challenges to securing lasting peace in the Middle East. Other thorny issues include the status of Jerusalem, the future of Jewish settlements on the West Bank and the Gaza Strip, and the future of the Golan Heights, now the subject of negotiations with Syria.

Yet, amidst the challenges, there is cause for hope. An extensive program of rehabilitation and development known as Bethlehem 2000 has prepared the town for this year's influx of tourists and pilgrims. Democratic institutions and practices—and a new breed of effective and inspiring political leaders—are emerging.

We spent an afternoon with one such leader, Jihan Anastas, the only woman on the 15-member Bethlehem City Council. We were all impressed with Jihan's eloquence and her vision. She and her colleagues face daunting challenges. For the foreseeable future, Palestinians will rely on access to jobs (as well as water and electricity) in Israel. Per capita annual income in the Palestinian territories is less than $2,000, compared to $18,000 in Israel. Yet progress is being made, and the scent of peace is in the air. The prospects for a sovereign Palestinian state on the West Bank and Gaza Strip improve by the day.

Our delegation went home to city halls across the United States with a better understanding of the problems and opportunities facing Israelis and their Palestinian neighbors. We returned with an awareness that we could support efforts to promote understanding and trust in the Middle East by expanding the dialogue and cooperation between our cities and Israeli and Palestinian communities. Maybe—just maybe—there is a role for mayors and the U.S. Conference of Mayors in promoting this cooperation and supporting a just and lasting peace in the Middle East.

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