The good news is that Bethlehem has its first female mayor.
But the bad news is that Mayor Vera Baboun, elected in October 2012, has since been facing a smear campaign that reached it peak last week when assailants damaged her private vehicle.
The assault on the mayor’s car serves as a reminder of the ongoing tensions between the Christian minority and Muslim majority of Bethlehem. It also highlights the huge challenges facing Palestinian women in a conservative society.
The leaders of the Christian community in Bethlehem rarely talk in public about the tensions with their Muslim neighbors; they prefer instead to direct their criticism against Israel. By turning a blind eye to the problems facing Christians, these leaders are doing a disservice to their own community.
Ever since she was elected, Baboun, a mother of five who was headmistress of the Roman Catholic High School in the nearby town of Beit Sahour, has been forced to deal with a well-organized campaign aimed at discrediting her and removing her from her job.
The campaign is being waged by some Muslim residents of Bethlehem and its surrounding refugee camps.
Some Palestinians clearly find it difficult to accept a woman as mayor of one of the most important Palestinian cities.
These residents apparently do not like a woman is sitting in the mayor’s seat. That she is Christian also seems to bother some of her opponents.
The assault on Baboun’s vehicle did not come as a surprise to her or to many Bethlehem residents.
In recent weeks, she has been strongly condemned by some Muslim residents of Bethlehem and nearby refugee camps for allegedly insulting their feelings and their religion.
The residents claim that Baboun prevented Palestinian girls from reciting a poem that included the phrase «Islam is our religion.»
Moreover, residents have accused the mayor of banning girls from performing while wearing the hijab [headscarf].
Although Baboun has denied the claims, arguing that they were part of a slander campaign, Muslim activists have used social media networks such as Facebook and Twitter to denounce her and ask for her resignation.
Alarmed by the smear campaign and threats made against her family and her, Baboun lodged a complaint with the Palestinian Authority against those responsible.
Earlier this week, the Palestinian Authority police in Bethlehem detained four Palestinians on charges of slander and libel against the mayor. Three of the detainees were Muslims, while the fourth was Maher Canawati, a Christian member of the Bethlehem Municipal Council.
The detention of the four men only increased tensions in the city; some residents accused Baboun of using her influence to crack down on her critics.
As if that were not enough, Fatah’s armed wing, Aqsa Martyrs Brigades, issued a leaflet urging Baboun to withdraw her complaint.
The group also called for the resignation of the entire municipal council and holding new elections.
Although the Aqsa Martyrs Brigades later denied any link to the leaflet, the intimidated mayor rushed to withdraw her complaint.
Explaining her decision, Baboun said, «I filed the complaint to say enough is enough! There is a law in the country and I chose to pursue the case in the legal framework. But now that Fatah has promised to follow up the case, and because I do not wish to escalate the situation to avoid affecting society peace, I withdrew my complaint.»
Bethlehem’s Female Mayor Faces Smears, Threats
by Khaled Abu Toameh
May 30, 2013 at 3:00 am