Freij's 25 years at the helm of Bethlehem municipality were enough to test the patience of a saint, trying to operate under constant Israeli pressure and harassment. The short, rotund Freij was also a tireless advocate for his town, travelling the world to keep its problems before the international community and to remind Bethlehem exiles as far away as the United States and South America to retain close links with home.
Once a year, at Christmas, the world focused on Bethlehem as thousands of pilgrims converged on the Church of the Nativity in Manger Square. Freij always tried to use the occasion to boost the town's profile. During the intifada that erupted in December 1987, he was forced to cancel the traditional Christmas reception. As a Greek Orthodox Christian, Freij expressed concern about the dwindling Christian population of the town of 50,000, where Muslims now outnumber Christians two to one. Accelerating emigration has reduced the Christians in the West Bank to just 3 per cent of Palestinians, though last year Yasser Arafat decreed that Bethlehem will always have a Christian mayor.
Born in Bethlehem in 1918 in a family that traced its presence there back 500 years, Freij graduated from the British-run Bishop Gobat School in Jerusalem in 1940. In the early 1950s he headed the local branch of the Holy Land Mission, an American Presbyterian-backed charity. He owned a string of shops that sold olive-wood and mother-of-pearl souvenirs, and joined the Chamber of Commerce in 1946 during the British Mandate in Palestine. He was appointed to the town's municipal council under Jordanian rule in 1960 and remained when Israel captured the West Bank in the 1967 war.
He became mayor in 1972 and was re-elected in 1976. Israel banned further municipal elections in the West Bank and Freij remained in office until resigning on health grounds last May. He was the only elected Palestinian mayor who was not eventually deposed by the Israeli military authorities for pro Palestine Liberation Organisation leanings (perhaps because he was seen as leaning more to the Jordanians). Freij was also the only non- PLO mayor to remain in office after the Palestinian Authority took office.
He was one of the few Palestinian politicians who was prepared to meet Israeli politicians, meeting both Labour and Likud leaders. This did not always help his relations with the PLO. Although publicly stating his view during the occupation that only the PLO could represent the Palestinians, he was in private sometimes highly critical of it. When he counselled opening peace talks with Israel during the intifada, Arafat in Tunis threatened a "a bullet in the chest" to anyone who undermined the exclusive authority of the PLO, a threat which was widely assumed to have been directed at Freij. The mayor also suffered abuse and death threats from radical Palestinians. In 1991 militants smashed his car after he defied a call for a Christmas Eve strike to protest at Israeli occupation.
Relations with the PLO were smoothed over and Freij was chosen to be a member of the Palestinian negotiating team to the Madrid peace conference in 1991. When Arafat set up an autonomous Palestinian government in 1994, Freij became the first minister of tourism. In 1995, he presided over the first Christmas in Bethlehem under Palestinian rule, days after Israeli troops pulled out.
Freij was a constant opponent of violence. "Both sides will suffer, and the Arabs will suffer more." His vision of peace was the Benelux model, envisioning cooperation between Israel, Jordan and the Palestinians. "In 1972 I said we must challenge Israel with peace and not war and there will be no solution to the Palestinian-Israeli conflict until we take the road to peace. These things were not accepted at the time," he recalled recently.
Freij died the day before the Palestinians commemorate Israeli land expropriation with Land Day. From his Bethlehem home, Freij had a clear view of the Gilo Jewish settlement, built above the Palestinian village of Beit Jala on expropriated land.
Elias Freij, politician: born Bethlehem, Palestine 1918; Mayor of Bethlehem 1972-97; Minister of Tourism, Palestine 1994-97; married (six children); died Amman, Jordan 29 March 1998.