Vera Baboun: Making life normal in the West Bank city of Bethlehem
How do you effectively govern a city when almost everything you do has to be approved by a neighbouring country? Vera Baboun is the first female mayor of Bethlehem in the West Bank, and her job is complicated by the fact that the majority of her jurisdiction is under Israeli control.
Vera Baboun sees her job as mayor of Bethlehem to make life normal—a huge challenge, considering more than 80 per cent of her municipality is controlled by Israel.
Elected in 2012, Baboun is the first female mayor of Bethlehem, and also a Christian. She is currently visiting Australia, hosted by the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade.
The real crisis or my fear is when the abnormal living that we live today is to be considered as normal.VERA BABOUN, MAYOR OF BETHLEHEM
Bethlehem is the birthplace of Jesus and a major Christian pilgrimage site. It is located in the West Bank, but 62 per cent of the governorate is classed as ‘Area C’, meaning security and civil administration is the responsibility of Israel. Another 20 per cent is military zones.
‘You cannot open a road or build a reservoir or do anything without taking the permit and the permission from the Israeli Civil Administration,’ Baboun says.
‘That is a big challenge because you cannot conduct a normal project, so quickly, so efficiently—you have to still wait for the approval of the Israeli administration.
‘The entrance of Bethlehem from the gate to a specific place in the area … is Area C. And now we’re renovating the entrance I have to submit every sketch to the Israeli civil administration to approve it.’
Life in Bethlehem is far from ‘normal’—in addition to needing development permissions from the Israeli government, unemployment is extremely high, water supplies are limited and their tourism industry is completely reliant on the absence of conflicts in the area.
Baboun says as mayor her job is to provide services and ‘lead life’ in Bethlehem. But she worries their current way of life will eventually be considered normal.
‘To live in a strangulated city, to live in a wall, is by itself an abnormal living, but I’m doing my best to help people feel the normality, help assist in projects,’ she says.
‘My fear is when the abnormal living that we live today is to be considered as normal.’
Building opportunities in a walled city
Baboun says Bethlehem is struggling under the weight of huge unemployment, with the highest jobless rate in the West Bank at 22.7 per cent. While many young people would normally seek work in Jerusalem, only 10 kilometres away, restrictions on travel limit their opportunities.
‘Since the wall was built on the northern borders of Bethlehem, thus separating that twinning relationship between Jerusalem and Bethlehem … nobody can enter Jerusalem without a permit,’ Baboun says.
‘In Bethlehem almost 49 per cent of the population are young people—19 years old and less—and this is a very challenging age, not anyone can take a permit and thus it creates a very significant challenge for us for seeking job opportunities.
‘In Bethlehem, 82 per cent of young people go to university and have a bachelor degree … young people who are educated either seek job opportunities outside Bethlehem, or if there’s not enough job opportunities they stay in Bethlehem, and that is why not everybody works according to their specialty.’
Tourism is a major industry in Bethlehem, but relies on the absence of clashes and conflicts. Any escalation in hostilities will affect it, Baboun says.
She adds that the municipality is working on developing other industries to create opportunities for the locals.
‘We have the industrial zone of Bethlehem, which is supposed to accommodate 5,000 job opportunities … it’s about light industry and that is a very good opportunity … now all the property is rented and six factories are being constructed,’ Baboun says.
Providing water to the electorate a daily challenge
One of Baboun’s first stops during her visit to Australia was to the Sydney Water Authority.
In Bethlehem, the municipality has to purchase their water—about 30 per cent from the Palestinian Water Authority and 60 per cent from Israel.
‘We need in Bethlehem almost 16,000 cubic metres for a day, but we receive 10,000,’ Baboun says.
‘We don’t have a water flow on a daily basis. That is why we distribute water as per schedule and it depends on the amount of water that we receive. That is why in Bethlehem it is very important that you have a well or tanks over the roofs in every house because almost every seven to 10 days you are scheduled to receive water.’
On top of that, 40 per cent of water is lost through pipes. The French and Dutch governments are currently sponsoring a new 43 kilometre network of pipes to serve the governorate.
The municipality is also building two new reservoirs, one of which is in the Israeli controlled Area C. Baboun says they are still waiting on approval for that after submitting the application in 2012.
When asked how a specialist in African American literature ended up in local government, Baboun says her education and jobs both led her to this role.
‘I’ve been an academic for 21 years, teaching our young people and a mother of five facing their challenges, hearing their dreams,’ she says.
‘The idea of serving my city was in my heart and mind and my consciousness.
‘I’m serving the city despite all the challenges—any positive step you make, any step forward to give your citizens a sense of normal living despite all the abnormality that we live [with], brings me a joy.’