French Foreign Minister visits Bethlehem, encourages tourism

 

The creation of a viable Palestinian state is in Israel’s interest, French Foreign Minister Bernard Kouchner said during a tour of the biblical town of Bethlehem on Saturday.

 

Kouchner urged tourists from around the world to visit Jesus’ traditional birthplace, as part of efforts to revive the battered Palestinian economy. In December, France co-hosted a pledging conference in which international donors promised to pay $7.7 billion (Dh28.3bn) in aid to the Palestinians over three years.

 

In Bethlehem, Kouchner met with the mayor, visited a peace center and toured a French hospital. Later on Saturday, he was to meet with Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas and Prime Minister Salam Fayyad, followed by talks on Sunday with Israeli officials.

 

Kouchner said he started his visit in Bethlehem because it is a symbol of peace and hope. “I know that the population all around is suffering ... but I hope we will get a better day,” he said. “I hope that here in Bethlehem, tourists from all over the world will come back to see the Church of the Nativity.”

 

Bethlehem had been hit hard by violence and Israeli travel restrictions during recent years of conflict, but tourism has recovered slightly in the last two years.

 

Kouchner said he believes peace is inevitable. “This is the only way ... also for Israel to be secure, living close to a Palestinian state,” he said.

 

In an interview with the Palestinian daily Al Quds, published on Saturday, Kouchner called for Gaza’s borders to be re-opened. Israel and Egypt severely restricted access to the territory after the Islamic militant Hamas seized control by force last June.

 

“We are calling to remove the blockade on Gaza because there must be movement for goods and people,” he said. “The economic and humanitarian situation in Gaza is bad, and the siege is affecting the economy in general, and also the living conditions. “  (AP)

 

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