Christmas in Bethlehem


Returning from the “Holy Land” (Occupied Palestinian territories and Israel) during the Christmas season has been a strange and difficult experience. It is not that we are religious, but rather because the gulf between the reality and the ideal of the Christmas in the holy cities of Bethlehem, Jerusalem, and elsewhere in the region is so wide. It has also been difficult to fully engage with the holiday here in North America — the shopping, meeting with friends and family, the feast, while the people of the holy land, especially Christians and Muslims in the Palestinian Territories, are forced to live under a harsh foreign military occupation. Not only is their suffering largely unacknowledged, but it is they themselves who are routinely considered the guilty parties in the conflict.

Bethlehem today is little more than a sleepy town. But not the same sleepy town it was 2000 years ago. After 4 years of military incursions, oppression, and violence, the town remains beseiged. Frequently the town is put under “curfew”, meaning that the residents are not allowed to leave their homes. More frequently, roadblocks and checkpoints are placed in and around the town to make travel to and from Bethlehem nearly impossible. Under such conditions, it is not surprising that the town expects very few tourists and visitors during the holidays. Rather than being greeted on the street, we are asked by young children in Bethlehem for help in finding missing relatives, taken by Israeli forces. Refugee camps have sadly become permanent fixtures, with United Nations relief replacing Christmas spirit. Army green seems to be the color of this Christmas season, with coils of barbed wire trimming the roads and alleys.

Because of these restrictions, as well as the town’s serious fiscal crisis due to the occupation, Bethlehem has had to cut back on its holiday celebrations and decorations. This is the fourth year in a row that the town has further rolled back its celebration of Christmas. Indeed, the town, like other holy cities under occupation (including the Old City of Jerusalem) seem to be frozen in time. Shops continue to peddle old merchandise that proclaim “Jubilee 2000” or other city names, followed by the year 2000. Similarly, many hotels in the holy land still have Christmas decorations from the year 2000. Four years ago these were hopeful signs, now they are only reminders of what has –or has not- come to pass, and add to the growing cynicism amongst residents.

Of course it was in the autumn of 2000 that the current Intifada broke out. “Intifada” literally means “shaking off” and refers to Palestinian renewed resistance to the occupation. While there was some hope amongst Palestinians that the Oslo peace accords would eventually lead to their own state, such hope deteriorated over the years. Then this second Intifada erupted. Hope dissolved because, as opposed to the Israeli claim that it sought peace with their Palestinian neighbors, the reality on the ground contradicted such a platitude. For instance, if Israel was to withdraw from the Occupied territories, why then had it confiscated Palestinian land and moved some 200,000 Israeli Jewish citizens on to it? Not only did the settler population double (any settlement of occupied territories is illegal under international law), but with the settlement, came hundreds of kilometers of “settler only “ highways, dozens of large military bases, the establishment of checkpoints and roadblocks aimed to “ghettoize” Palestinian communities, and so on. It is not surprising, given the reality under which Palestinians were living, that the words of “peace” were not trusted.

Now four years later, more settlements continue to be built, settlers are encouraged to move into the occupied territories, and Israeli infrastructure continues to expand throughout the West Bank. Almost unbelievably, many people throughout the world and especially America, blame Palestinians for the ongoing conflict between Israel and Palestine. Through the work of officials who acknowledge spending hundreds of millions of dollars for the purpose of “representing” to the West their version of the conflict, Israelis have succeeded in pulling the wool over the eyes –and conscience- of the world.

The Christmas season is said to be, after all the consumerism and contradictions, a respite for the children. For the children of Bethlehem and other sacred towns in the West Bank there is a frightening routine this year: Israeli military vehicles attempt to enter the area, children throw rocks, bricks and garbage, while absorbing the tear gas, sound-bombs, and sometimes live fire. All of this before nine o’clock in the morning, and right down the street from Rachel’s tomb, Jacob’s well and other revered sites.

In North America, as we come together with friends and family to share in the celebration of Christmas, it is our hope that even a few will understand that while we are enjoying our holiday, for those who live in the Holy Land, and specifically in places like Bethlehem, the harsh and unjust conflict is sustained by our complicity and silence.

Finally, we would like to close with a holiday message from Hanna J. Nasser, the Mayor of Bethlehem:

Christmas is the season of love, joy and peace.  It is an occasion for prayer and faith as it reminds us of God’s great gift to mankind, which is the birth of Christ our Saviour in Bethlehem.  It was in the sky of Bethlehem that the Angels heralded “ Glory to God in the Highest, Peace on earth and good will towards men”. 

As sons of Bethlehem and descendants of the Shepherds who first heard this sacred message, we feel honored and privileged and we keep expecting every Christmas that this Holy occasion would bring with it the winds of change with seeds of peace that are liable to end our hardships and captivity.

Yet the suffering of the town of Nativity endures and new agony for its people springs up.  Bethlehem this year is grieved by the passing away of our President Yasser Arafat, the historical leader of the Palestinian people.  Our sorrow is so big for this great loss of the father of the nation and a constructor of peace who regretfully has left before his cherished dream of achieving peace in our region is fulfilled.

Each year I try not to be gloomy in my Christmas message but the harsh facts on the ground and the clouds of instability and suffering that continue to overshadow Bethlehem strongly push me to this direction.  Living under occupation is certainly the most painful experience man can face and the biggest offend to human rights and dignity.

We each day have to swallow the bitterness of the Israeli practices: killing of our people, demolition of houses, arrest and humiliation. The closure and the oppressive siege have crippled Bethlehem and deteriorated the living conditions of its people to an unprecedented degree.  Works have started with the blessing of the Israeli High Court of Justice to annex Rachel’s Tomb area to Israel thus stripping off a very vital and a dear part of Bethlehem from its natural environment.

We live in the horror of the separation wall that has costed Bethlehem considerable part of its lands. It has suffocated our town as it separates it from its sister city Jerusalem and isolates it from the outside world.  In consequence, our daily life has been affected including our ability to sustain ourselves.  Temptation to emigrate is therefore excessively growing amongst the people of Bethlehem.

However, we shall not allow these ordeals to dispossess us from the values revered in Christmas or to loose hope.  Christmas for us is the light in the Middle of darkness.  It is time when prayers are needed more than ever to achieve peace in this Holy Land.  We feel the newborn in the Manger profoundly present with us giving us strength and hope. Christmas is a new dawn with saving promise for all.

The    message of Bethlehem at Christmas is a message of justice, an appeal to all people of good will to do whatever they can to achieve durable peace in our Holy Land, peace that is based on justice, equality and mutual respect.  Jesus said: “ Blessed are the peace-makers for they shall be called the Children of God.” 

My message is a painful cry out of the captivity and oppression extended to the whole international community to spare no effort for the sake of putting an end to the Israeli occupation to the Palestinian lands that is the source of all troubles and the only obstacle in front of peace.

My message is addressed to all our Christian brethren.  To them I say:  Do not forget Bethlehem.  Rescue it.  Give it the care and support at this time of need that matches its religious significance as the cradle of Christianity.  Visit the place where your roots are stretched.

“Bethlehem always warmly welcomes you”   
I wish you all a Merry Christmas and a Blessed New Year
   
Hanna J. Nasser
Mayor of Bethlehem

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