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September 8, 2012

The group started their second full day in the region with a tour of the Church of the Nativity, considered by many to be the birthplace of Jesus Christ.

The tour marked the first event in which we did not engage in the conflict, but acted rather as more conventional tourists, wandering Bethlehem’s streets and becoming acquainted with its heritage.

In the late morning, the group met with the mayor of Bethlehem, Victor Batarseh, who spoke in detail of the city’s economy, health, and psychology.

Professor Daniel Wehrenfennig and UC Irvine Vice Chancellor Thomas Parham sit with Bethlehem’s mayor, Victor Batarseh. Credit: Tasha Locke

Batarseh discussed how the construction of Israel’s wall has negatively impacted the city’s economy by way of separating farmers from their olive groves and reducing the population’s ability to commute into Jerusalem.

According to Batarseh, there two main sources of employment in Bethlehem, agriculture and employment in Jerusalem. A third sector, tourism has been developing strong growth in recent years due to interest in the area’s religious sites and a steadily improving perception of security.

The group later met with Zoughbi Zhoughbi at the  Wi’am Palestinian Conflict Resolution Center. Zhoughbi discussed the center’s role in resolving local conflicts between tenants and landlords, teachers and families.

Zhoughbi also spoke to the harmful impact of the separation wall and the Israeli government on the people of Bethlehem both in practical and psychological terms.

Students and staff members listen to Zoughbi Zhoughbi of the Wi’am Palestinian Conflict Resolution Center. Credit: Tasha Locke

According to Zhougbi, the wall and political status of the West Bank impacted the people’s mental health, acting as a permanent reminder of their state of victimhood in the occupation.  Zhougbi added that such anger is largely harmful to the peace process and should be transformed to compassion – a more progressive emotion.

We then walked to the Aida Refugee Camp in Bethlehem, which today resembles a low-income neighborhood with permanent buildings.

In the camp the Olive Tree Initiative met with Abdelfattah Abusrour, a doctor and General Manager at the Alrowwad Center. The Alrowwad Center, located in Aida, strives to practice what Mr. Ausrour calls “beautiful resistance,” or the civil expression of frustration.

Residents of the Aida Refugee Camp walk by its entrance. Credit: Tasha Locke

The center allows youth to practice arts and crafts, put on plays, and engage in other ways to celebrate their culture. Abusrour spoke at length to his views on the current political situation, the possibility of political compromise, and his own personal narrative.

Directly following Abusrour was Professor Mazin Qumsiyeh of Bethlehem University.

A supporter of the one-state solution, Qumsiyeh was critical of Zionism, Israeli policy, and the Jewish narrative. Qumsiyeh said he felt that Israel’s undertaking of Zionism had proven a failed project.

Following the speakers, students were sent to share a meal with several Palestinian families, all  relatives of the Olive Tree Initiative’s long-time friend George Rishmawi.

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