Christians in Bethlehem, the birthplace of Jesus, must be wondering about the traditional Christmas message of ‘good will to men’ (men meaning people).
They face a bleak future. Christians are fleeing in their thousands for a better life in other lands free of an occupation force, endless security checks and territorial disputes. Those who remain have what is one of the highest unemployment rates (18%) in the West Bank. Business has rarely been so bad.
The main reason is two-fold: the loss of land caused by the eight-metre high concrete security barrier which Israel is building for its own security and the steady encroachment of Jewish settlements on what Palestinians have regarded as as their own land.
A Palestinian film-maker, Leila Sansour, claims that the security wall now confines Bethlehem residents to only 13% of the town’s original territory, the rest having been confiscated. A Palestinian official is quoted as saying it could end up even more crowded than Gaza.
Bethlehem’s mayor, Vera Baboun, says: ‘We are a strangulated city with no room for expansion due to the settlements and the wall’. The Palestinian president, Mahmoud Abbas, said Bethlehem was enduring a ‘choking reality’. He added: ‘For the first time in 2000 years of Christianity in our homeland, the holy cities of Bethlehem and Jerusalem have been completely separated by Israeli settlements, racist walls and checkpoints’.
According to a Guardian correspondent, Bethlehem is now surrounded by 22 settlements. More will follow. The UN has declared them to be illegal. Israel regards these and other settlements in the area to be legitimate suburbs of Jerusalem which is 10 kms north of Bethlehem. Having annexed East Jerusalem after the Six-Day War in 1967, Israel declared Jerusalem as the unified capital of the Jewish state.
Last August, Israel took over 400 hectares near Bethlehem of what a Palestinian mayor said was land belonging to Palestinian families and declared it ‘state land’. This came just after three Israeli teenagers were kidnapped and killed two months earlier. The New York Times reported that the timing of the takeover ‘suggested it was meant as a kind of compensation for the settlers and punishment for the Palestinians’.
The very idea of Palestinians recovering lost land is wishful thinking. It is lost forever. Bethlehem is slowly being surrounded by settlements, a kind of ring of nationalism to reinforce Israel’s security. As far as many of the settlers are concerned, the land has belonged to the Jews since Biblical times. Indeed websites for settlements refer them to being not in the West Bank, but Judea and Samaria.
It is generally accepted that the shepherds who watched their flock by that momentous night 2000 years ago were Jewish. Just outside Bethlehem, the fields where the sheep once grazed are now separated from the town by the security wall and inaccessible to the Palestinians.
Local Christians have gone to the courts to fight the planned route of a section of the security wall. This would cut off a monastery and convent from their land along with 58 families. The monks and nuns have joined forces to challenge it. It will be decided in the Israeli courts next year.
One can only wonder what Jesus, a Jew worshipped in the name of Christianity, would have made of all this ill will.
FOOTNOTE: An Israeli couple I knew who lived in Jerusalem each week drove to Bethlehem for their weekly food shopping. They got on well with all the Palestinian shopkeepers and were good friends. But after the first intifada (Palestinian uprising) in 1987 any vehicle with an Israeli numberplate became a target for the ubiquitous Palestinian rock-throwers. Such a once simple drive is not possible today thanks to the wall, checkpoints and Israelis needing a special permit to travel to places like the little(r) town of Bethlehem.
Now for a lament by an old friend and former foreign newsman, Andrew Ailes, who lives in London:
The Unholy Land
I fear this year that I will see,
Another million refugees,
Filling the news from overseas,
As I sit by my Christmas tree.
Where Jesus spoke in Aramaic,
Was once a land of rich mosaic,
Where Christian sects of many colours,
Lived in harmony with others.
Now every day the Christians flee,
Seeking some kind of sanctuary.
The Holy Land of history,
Is riven with uncertainty.
Can I recall the Holy birth,
And wish my neighbours ‘Peace on Earth’,
While displaced people sit and wait,
Powerless to control their fate?
Man’s inhumanity to man
Makes Christmas hard to understand –
Those children with their haunted eyes.
The babies with their wounded cries.
They are the flotsam of a war –
We don’t know what they did before,
The victims of so many ills,
Clinging to life in barren hills.
How much I wish them peace on earth,
And question what my wish is worth,
Can any faith be consolation,
For these scenes of desolation?
In some wrecked building, cold and damp,
A cave, a tent, a U.N. camp,
No doubt some babies will be born
On Christmas Day……. God keep them warm.