German FM angers Palestinians

Steinmeier refuses to meet Bethlehem's mayor because of latter's Hamas links.

May 5, 2007 18:11
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Bethlehem Mayor Victor Batarseh criticized German Foreign Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier on Saturday for refusing to meet with him during his visit to the city. The German minister's decision to boycott Batarseh is apparently linked to the fact that the Bethlehem municipal council is dominated by Hamas figures. Batarseh, a Christian, was elected thanks to support from Hamas and Islamic Jihad. Batarseh is affiliated with the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine, a Marxist group based in Syria that won three seats in the last municipal elections in Bethlehem. The PFLP has since formed a coalition with Hamas, which won five seats, and Islamic Jihad, which has one seat. Bethlehem Gov. Salah Ta'mari boycotted the German minister in solidarity with the mayor. During his visit to the city, Steinmeier met with Palestinian Authority Finance Minister Salaam Fayad and Tourism Minister Khuloud Daibes. "This is a humiliation not only for the Bethlehem Municipality and its mayor, but for the entire Palestinian people," Batarseh said. "There is only one address in Bethlehem: the municipality and the mayor. Anyone who does not want to meet the mayor is not welcome in the city. Our municipal council was elected in a democratic vote and anyone who does not respect this should not come here." A large sign hanging in Manger Square reads: "Anyone who does not want to meet with our mayor is persona non grata in Bethlehem!" Batarseh said he planned to send a letter to PA Chairman Mahmoud Abbas to ask that he take a clear position regarding the boycott of Hamas-controlled municipalities. "The international community must respect the democratic choice of the Palestinian people," Batarseh said. "What happened today [Saturday] is scandalous and unacceptable." Fayad and Steinmeier met at the Intercontinental Hotel near Rachel's Tomb. Fayad said the meeting was aimed at easing the daily suffering of Palestinians. He said he urged his guest to work toward ending the Western-led economic boycott of the PA government and to pressure Israel to release PA tax revenues. Fayad also called on Steinmeier, whose country currently presides over the European Union, to enlarge the temporary mechanism for assistance to the PA and to help reduce the debts of the Palestinian private sector. The EU had agreed to a temporary mechanism to bypass the previous Hamas government. This is not the first time Germany has angered Palestinians. Last month, PA officials accused German Chancellor Angela Merkel of "offending the Palestinians' feelings" during her visit to Ramallah, where she met with Abbas. Merkel rejected a request by the Palestinians to visit Bethlehem and meet with Christian leaders. She also refused to tour Israel's separation barrier in the West Bank. "She did everything to provoke the Palestinians during her visit," said one official. "She showed no understanding for the plight of our people. On the other hand, she appeared to be very biased toward Israel." The official said that while Merkel refused to meet with families of Palestinians held in Israel, she focused during her talks with Abbas on the need to release kidnapped Cpl. Gilad Schalit, who has been held in the Gaza Strip since June. In addition, he noted, Merkel met with the families of missing IDF soldiers during her visit to Jerusalem. At the joint press conference with Abbas, Merkel refused to answer a question about the Palestinian prisoners, the official added. "She appeared to be obsessed with the case of Gilad Schalit," he said. "But she refused to even acknowledge the fact that we have more than 10,000 prisoners in Israel." Another PA official described Merkel's visit to Ramallah as "extremely negative and a total disappointment." He said Abbas had originally requested that the meeting take place in Bethlehem, where Christians were celebrating Holy Week.

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