The Hand of Mayor Elias Freij Now Rocks the Little Town of Bethlehem, Cradle of Christ

updated 12/16/1985 at 01:00 AM EST

originally published 12/16/1985 01:00AM

It is dawn in the Judean hills and the Palestinian shepherds are tending their flocks among the gnarled olive trees as they have for thousands of years. Despite the hour, Elias Freij, the 66-year-old mayor of Bethlehem, is already afoot down below, moving briskly through the narrow alleys of the town where Jesus was born. "Sabah el-kher! Good morning!" he shouts to a handful of men in overalls whisking their brooms across the asphalt. Continuing on past Fatima's Store and Scheherazade's Restaurant, he checks the garbage collection near Mike's Video, then pauses to consider the lights along Manger Square. He finds them less luminous than their cost suggests. "The other day," he sighs, "I signed a check for the electricity bill. It is $200 a day!" He shrugs. "But one cannot leave the town in the dark."

One cannot indeed. Especially not now, with Christmas coming and the arrival of hundreds of thousands of tourists in a deluge of near-biblical proportions. On Christmas Eve yuletide pilgrims will make their way through the square to midnight Mass at the Church of the Nativity. The Roman Catholic Mass is just one of five celebrations in Christ's birthplace. On Jan. 6, three different churches will enjoy their moment amid the incense: the Assyrian at 8 a.m., the Copt at 11 a.m. and the Greek Orthodox at 1 p.m. The Armenians will start their festivities on Jan. 18.

A lesser man would be daunted by the logistics of spreading all this Christmas cheer. Not Freij. He is used to acrobatics, to turning flips upon demand. As mayor of Bethlehem, he's been on a political tightrope for years, moving nimbly between Israel and the PLO, occasionally using Jordan as a net. Freij is a Greek Orthodox Christian and the Palestinian mayor in a city that is 40 percent Christian and 60 percent Moslem. Bethlehem (pop. 50,000) is on the Israeli-occupied West Bank, land that belonged to Jordan prior to the 1967 Six-Day War and is coveted by the PLO. Politically, Freij is firmly rooted in the middle ground. Though he recognizes the PLO as the sole representative of the Palestinian people, he remains a political moderate. "Extremists on either side are cowards," he says. "We Palestinians should challenge Israel for peace and not for war."

According to Jerusalem Mayor Teddy Kollek, "Freij is a most courageous man who is in a terribly difficult position." PLO sympathizer and former mayor of Nablus Bassam Shaka'a, who lost his legs in a 1980 assassination attempt by Israeli terrorists, disagrees. He says Freij is in the Israelis' pocket. Otherwise, he argues, they would not have allowed him to reign in Bethlehem for better than a dozen years. Yet it is a food supply merchant in Bethlehem named Ahmed who appears to offer the most streetwise perspective of Freij. "I'm not a great lover of him," says Ahmed, "but I do admire the way he conducts the game."

The goal of the game, as the mayor plays it, is not simply to survive, but to thrive. It is to get your friends and would-be enemies to vie with one another toward this end. Consider the year-old fruit and vegetable market in downtown Bethlehem ("the biggest on the entire West Bank!" chortles the mayor). It was funded with $100,000 from Israel, $340,000 from Arab countries and $900,000 from a U.S. aid program. Now consider the two new schools with sports facilities that Saudi Arabia is underwriting, or the town hall, courtesy of Jordan.

His willingness to deal with anyone for the benefit of Bethlehem has made Freij a target of frequent death threats from extreme Arab groups. Last year Arab youths protesting the mayor's policies firebombed a family-owned store run by one of his three sons. Despite this, Freij has no bodyguards, keeps his office door open to all comers and ignores the warnings. "I'm not afraid," he says.

In Bethlehem they like to say of their mayor that "he walks between the raindrops without getting wet." It's unlikely that Freij inherited his political dexterity from his parents. They were crafts people whose ancestors had lived in Bethlehem for 500 years. They worked in mother-of-pearl, making crucifixes and rosaries for the tourist trade. Elias took over the family business in 1950 and promptly brought it into the 20th century. He secularized the product line by getting outside designers to create brooches, necklaces, earrings and jewelry boxes. He printed glossy catalogs to boost sales and came to the U.S. to promote his wares. Married to Victoria Freij (a sixth cousin) in 1940, he became a wealthy man and sent his six children (three boys, three girls) to college in the U.S.

In 1963 Freij won a seat on the Bethlehem city council. But it wasn't until Israel captured the West Bank that he came into his political salad days. In 1972 Israel staged municipal elections in the occupied zone. Despite PLO admonitions that Arabs should not play ball with their captors, Freij entered the elections and won. "I won again in 1976," he adds. "Shimon Peres was then Minister of Defense. I wrote and asked him to allow women to vote. Seventeen West Bank mayors opposed my demand. Mr. Peres asked me, 'Will the Arab women come to vote?' I replied, 'If a candidate wants to win, he will carry his grandmother from a wheelchair and bring her to vote.' " Peres changed the law in 1976, and now 80 percent of the West Bank's Arab women regularly vote in municipal elections and, not incidentally, have helped reelect Freij.

In 1982 the mayor's counterparts in five West Bank towns were deposed by Israel when they refused to cooperate with the newly formed civil administration. Only Elias Freij recognized the new governing body. Many Palestinians saw the administration as the beginning of an annexation. For this latest accommodation with the occupying Israelis, Freij was widely condemned. "I told them the change in title would not change the substance. It's just a continuation of the Israeli administration."

It is later in the day, and Freij's office in the four-year-old town hall, paid for by Jordan, is humming with activity. "How does the road progress?" the mayor asks his secretary. The road, he explains, is the one the Greek Patriarch will take on Christmas Day when he travels here from Jerusalem. "Someone built a house too close to the road," he says, "and the road just fell."

The room is crawling with supplicants, many from surrounding villages, who feel their taxes are unjust or who want the mayor to mediate for them with the Israelis to get back their land or maybe a son imprisoned as a suspected subversive. Some of these petitioners have no doubt called Elias Freij a quisling at one time or another. But now they need him. "They try to act like ostriches," says Freij of the villagers. "They put their heads in the sand and make believe that Israel doesn't exist." Smiling, he adds: "I am a pragmatist. A politician cannot afford to be a dreamer."

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