Bethlehem's female mayor has sights on developing historic city

“For 30 years, this desk has always been facing (the entrance door),” said Baboun, a Catholic. Now it faces the picture window looking out onto Nativity Square and the Church of the Nativity. “What is the difference between this office and an office in any other part of the world? It is the Nativity; it is the birth of our Jesus lord. This is what I ensured I see on a daily basis. I ensured to see the message of hope, which I need most dramatically in my position.”

As the first woman elected mayor of this financially and geographically strapped city where Christians today are dwindling in numbers, Baboun is not only aware of the political and administrative challenges she faces, but also of her position as a role model for other Palestinian women. She was the second woman to be elected as mayor of a major Palestinian city and the only female mayor in that cycle of elections.

“This is my message to every woman: Be the change that you desire to address. And I think I am the change that I desire, and I had the confidence that I could do it, and I radiated it.”

Promoting development

After eight years of being boycotted by the international community because of a municipal council coalition with Hamas, agreed to by the previous mayor, Bethlehem, with its population of 22,000, has suffered greatly in the area of development, Baboun said.

Hamas boycotted the election, and so there are no Hamas members on the new council.

Right now, Baboun, 49, said her first concern is how to increase development in the city.

“Development means dignified living for any human being, for any citizen in the city,” she said. “We know the international community is now supporting the city, so we just need to define our priorities and submit our proposals. We know there is a developmental process going on and it should bring a better reality to the city.”

With its historical and religious significance, Bethlehem is not only a city of its citizens, but it also belongs to people around the world, Baboun said.

Struggling with an issue that her predecessors also have grappled with, Baboun is searching for ways to entice visitors to stay for more than just a few hours in the city. Thirteen new hotels are under construction, she said, but that will only enhance one sector of the economy, and development of the city must extend to include other sectors.

Different approach

With Baboun in office less than a year, some people are not comfortable with a female mayor, Bethlehem Chamber of Commerce Chairman Samir Hazboun said.

“There needs to be some time before some people will be convinced that a woman can do such a post. It is not easy,” he told OSV, adding that her election already is having a cultural and social impact on the city. “At the end of the day it was the majority who elected her, and those who are unhappy can continue to be unhappy or they can learn about life.”

Although it is too early to pass judgment on Baboun’s performance as mayor, Hazboun said the chamber feels a greater willingness on the part of the municipality to involve the private sector in projects than the previous council.

“The municipal council seems more serious,” he said. “We had been trying to establish some cooperation before. It shows a new way of management. This is very, very positive. There is a new way of approaching things and dealing with problems, with more people engaged in different projects of the municipality. She can deal with things in a different way. She is a woman and does not need to deal with it in a man’s way.”

Loyalty to city

A former university lecturer in English literature at Bethlehem University, Baboun also taught gender studies and is a member of several nonprofit boards. She said that life did not permit her to sit stashed away in the ivory tower for too long.

After her political activist husband was imprisoned for three years in an Israeli prison for his activities with the Fatah movement during the first intifada, Baboun, now a widow, had to take the reins of supporting her family early on.

With her husband’s blessing, she began studying for her master’s in literature at the Israeli Hebrew University of Jerusalem, focusing on the African-American experience. She planned to continue on for her doctorate there as well, but has put it aside as she focuses on her new role as mayor.

Baboun’s husband, Johnny, died in 2007 due to heart problems contracted during his imprisonment; recognized as a Palestinian martyr, his coffin was wrapped in a Palestinian flag at his funeral.

“The national spirit that my husband was carrying is all around us, so I lived that national sense and that loyalty to the city in my household, in my place with my husband. We were living it all together on a daily basis,” she said. “This is why I love this city and why I stay. I have a husband who paid not only physically but all through the sickness years … We lived the loyalty to Palestine and loyalty to Bethlehem, and I am loyal to the spirit of Johnny and all those others who sacrificed as well.”

On her finger she wears a gold ring with the image of the Virgin Mary, which she had made as a sign of her faith as she cared for her husband. Today her five children are supportive of her work and were active in helping her campaign during the elections.

Little room for growth

Many difficulties currently face Bethlehem, which is now the smallest of all Palestinian cities. In it, a large chunk of land in Area C is under Israeli control and no development projects can be undertaken. Encircled almost on all sides by Israeli settlements and the Israeli separation barrier, Bethlehem has practically nowhere to expand other than a small swatch of land on its southern border with the neighboring village of Beit Sahour, Baboun said.

The council has taken the decision to expand the size of Bethlehem by adding 3 square kilometers (1.16 square miles) from this area between the two villages, she said.

“I am thinking about (the young people) 10 years from now,” she said. “Either we prepare something for them (or we will lose them). That is why the expansion of the size of Bethlehem is crucial and needed and significant for any sustainable developmental processes in the city.” 

Judith Sudilovsky writes from Jerusalem.