From the Friday, 23 December 2005 Wall Street Journal:
Stirring Up Region
A Christian Fights Corruption,
But Attracts Criticism;
Politicizing a Holy City
U.S. Consulate Takes a Pass
By KARBY LEGGETT
Staff Reporter of THE WALL STREET JOURNAL
December 23, 2005; Page A1
BETHLEHEM -- As Christmas approaches, a garland of white lights illuminates Star Street, the famous pathway to Manger Square in this city believed to be the birthplace of Jesus. But to organize this year's annual tourist spectacle, the city's Christian mayor relied on some unlikely helpers: leaders of the militant Islamic group Hamas, who are key members of his government.
The collaborative municipal effort captures the unusual position that mayor Victor Batarseh finds himself in these days. Elected in May, he is the top public official in one of the holiest cities in the Christian religion. Yet he runs Bethlehem through a coalition dominated by Hamas, a group blacklisted by the U.S. and Europe as a terrorist organization.
"It's time we open our hearts and minds to Hamas," says the 71-year-old mayor.
Mr. Batarseh's embrace of Hamas helps explain a puzzle in Palestinian society: how an organization that prides itself on terrorizing Israeli civilians -- often by encouraging Palestinian youths to blow themselves up -- has become so popular and powerful.
Born in the 1980s, Hamas has made its name by emphasizing Islamic religious piety and resistance to Israel's military occupation, often via terror attacks directed at Israeli citizens. For many Palestinians, however, the group's appeal lies with its reputation for battling endemic government corruption and providing effective, low-cost public services from education to medical care.
Now, in the Palestinian territories of the West Bank and Gaza, the group is testing the breadth of that support. Under the late Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat, Hamas had very limited political power. But Mahmoud Abbas, Mr. Arafat's elected successor, has invited Hamas to participate in all levels of politics, including the Palestinian Authority, the quasigovernment he oversees.
The decision is the centerpiece of a colossal bet that he can defang Hamas by enfolding it into the political process. Ultimately, Mr. Abbas hopes he can moderate the group by merging its military wing into the official Palestinian security forces -- an idea that's in sync with Mr. Abbas's mantra of "one gun, one law."
So far this year, local elections have been held in more than 250 cities and villages. Hamas candidates have won about a quarter of these races, emerging victorious in major cities such as Nablus, Jenin and Qalqilya. The group has also done well in Gaza, its traditional stronghold. In many cases, Hamas is defeating candidates from Mr. Abbas's own secular Fatah Party, which has long dominated local politics. Hamas is now gearing up for a major push in Palestinian legislative elections scheduled for late next month that could prove a sharp blow to Fatah.
The U.S. is a major backer of Mr. Abbas and his push for Palestinian democracy. But it continues to insist, along with the Israelis, that Hamas lay down its arms before joining into politics.
The complex new alliances stand to have a profound effect on the region. They could prompt Israel to sever ties with the Palestinian Authority, damping hopes for a negotiated settlement. A Hamas victory in January might also endanger a U.S.-backed plan to provide as much as $9 billion in aid and investment to the Palestinians.
Mr. Batarseh ran into problems with the U.S. shortly after taking office when he invited a group of foreign diplomats to come to Bethlehem to meet the new city government. His goal, he says, was to reassure them that Bethlehem would retain its Christian character, and to seek financial help with infrastructure projects. A $3 million solid-waste project was at the top of his list.
The U.S. turned down his invitation. A spokeswoman for the U.S. Consulate in Jerusalem says it has no official contact with Mr. Batarseh, citing his political affiliations. Says Mr. Batarseh: "Soon every Palestinian city will have members of Hamas in their government, so I guess the U.S. will boycott all of us."
Set in the hills of the West Bank about a mile outside Jerusalem, Bethlehem has a population of 30,000 and was once a majority Christian city. In the early 1990s, the demographic balance tipped in favor of Muslims. Today, the city has some 10 churches and about 15 mosques. Residents mainly toil in a tourism-based economy, although many wealthy Christians have moved away in recent years as the number of visitors dwindled.
Mr. Batarseh, short with thinning white hair, was born and raised here. He attended medical school in Cairo and later did a stint as a medical officer in the Jordanian military. Like many Palestinians, Mr. Batarseh felt the tug of politics from a young age. After Israel gained control over the West Bank and Gaza in 1967, he joined a radical faction known as the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestinian, PFLP, which was dedicated to fighting Israel.
By the mid-1990s, the peace process with Israel was in full swing. Christian pilgrims poured into Bethlehem. Tourism revenues exploded. Beneath the surface, though, tension brewed. Much of the anger was directed at widespread corruption in the government, which was run by appointees of Mr. Arafat. A corruption scandal over the mishandling of the construction of a new bus station crystallized frustrations.
When peace talks broke down in 2000, Bethlehem erupted into often violent chaos. Some members of Mr. Arafat's security forces joined the fighting under a group known as the Al Aqsa Martyrs Brigade. As they battled Israel, many Brigade members also began demanding protection money from shop owners, local merchants say.
Opening the Door
The turning point came in April 2002. A group of armed militants -- the vast majority affiliated with Mr. Arafat's Fatah party -- took refuge in Bethlehem's Church of the Nativity as they fled Israeli forces. A standoff, televised live around the world, ensued for more than a month. It was resolved when militants were transported out of Bethlehem to Gaza and overseas.
While their departure was a relief to many residents, it also opened the door wider to Hamas. The group expanded a medical clinic and strengthened its presence in a workers union. At the Salah El Din mosque, Hamas activists redoubled efforts to raise money for a day-care center and orphanage that catered to children whose parents had been injured or killed by Israel's military. Eventually, it expanded coverage to include 1,600 children -- Muslim and Christian. Each child was given a monthly stipend and free meat on holidays.
With Mr. Arafat's death late last year, Bethlehem announced it would hold elections along with many other Palestinian cities. Mr. Batarseh decided to run for a seat on the city council, his first attempt at public office. His goal was to unseat members of Fatah, who had been running the city for nearly a decade.
Historically, Bethlehem's mayor has always been a Christian; eight of the 15 municipal council seats are also reserved for Christians. Mr. Batarseh, a practicing Catholic, won the popular vote. But in order to become mayor -- a post determined by vote among city council members -- he had to choose between allies: Christian members of Mr. Abbas's Fatah party or Islamists aligned with Hamas and a smaller militant faction known as Islamic Jihad, which has also carried out numerous terror attacks.