Christmas inspires peace on earth and goodwill toward men (as written in Luke 2:14), so one might wonder why the mayor of Bethlehem used the launch of festivities at the birthplace of Jesus to compare Israel to apartheid-era South Africa and call for a cultural boycott of the Jewish state.
The Jerusalem Post’s West Bank and Gaza correspondent, Khaled Abu Toameh reports Mayor Victor Batarseh, meeting with reporters after delivering his annual Christmas message, said the boycott is a useful tool that worked in South Africa as he also took the opportunity to “lash out” at Jewish settlers. Batarseh said:
We call for boycotting Israel culturally, educationally, in sports, economics and trade,” the mayor told reporters in Bethlehem. “This is the only way to make Israel come back to the negotiating table and make peace within six months. It worked with South Africa.”
Batarseh said that this was “our message in the political field as Palestinians and residents of Bethlehem.”
The Ma’an Palestinian news agency reports:
"We are peaceful people. We want peace," he said after announcing the start of Christmas festivities. But it must be a "just and legal peace based on UN resolutions," and the "only way Israel will agree to peace is if it is forced.
"I don't mean violently, I mean it should be boycotted. Boycott Israel culturally, educationally, in sports and in trade," Batarseh continued, "and Israel will make peace in six months. Believe me."
He compared Palestine's situation to apartheid South Africa, before it abandoned racial discrimination in the face of a global boycott, sanctions and divestment movement and local resistance.
Ma’an explains Mayor Batarseh is staking out a more hardline position than the Fatah-led Palestinian Authority headed by President Mahmoud Abbas and Prime Minister Salam Fayyad who call for boycotting West Bank and Jerusalem “settlements” but not cultural activities taking place within the entire territory of Israel.
Palestinian Prime Minister Fayyad, who pressed the button lighting up the 50-foot decorated tree in Manger Square outside the Church of the Nativity, also inserted a political message into the holiday. According to AP, Fayyad said Christmas is an opportunity to "celebrate the Palestinian identity of Jesus Christ."
Calling for a boycott of Israel is apparently a trademark of the annual Christmas messaging by the mayor, a member of the Marxist party: the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine (PFLP).
Last year’s message was characterized this way by Israel National News:
Bethlehem Mayor Victor Batarseh lashed out at Israel this week at a tree-lighting ceremony in honor of the Christmas holiday. He accused Israel of cutting Bethlehem off from “its twin city Jerusalem” and called for international sanctions.
“Trade sanctions, sports sanctions, educational sanctions, cultural sanctions. Sanctions are the only way,” he said. Batarseh added that it would be “a waste of time” to negotiate with Israel.
Israel National News’ reporting last year suggested that while he focused on lashing out at Israel, Batarseh chose not to discuss the serious issue of Christians moving out of Bethlehem:
… in Bethlehem the Christian population has fallen to an estimated 15% from 60% over the course of 20 years. Experts have blamed the drop in the Christian population in large part on Muslim harassment, which is encouraged by the PA [Palestinian Authority] and PA laws based in Sharia Islamic law.
According to Wikipedia, "In 1947, Christians made up 85% of the population, but by 1998 this figure had declined to 40%."
While there was no video of the mayor’s speech readily available, you can watch the lighting of the Christmas trees in Bethlehem and Nazareth courtesy of AP: