On Christmas Eve, Christian pilgrims from all over the world flock to the birthplace of Jesus Christ, while millions more remember it in prayers and carols. But the Palestinian inhabitants of Bethlehem remain virtually invisible to most Christians, who treat the tiny city as an almost mythical place that somehow exists beyond the realm of the real world.
This apathy, particularly but not exclusively felt in the West, largely reflects a widespread and willful ignorance – for in choosing to think of Bethlehem as an imaginary town, one abandons any responsibility to question Western, and especially American, support for Israel or to show solidarity with an indigenous population living under occupation.
Where are the witnesses?
There are a growing number of Western activists who lead solidarity campaigns with the Palestinians or choose to be at the forefront of non-violent resistance to Israeli occupation – sometimes risking and even losing their lives in the process – but I am continually puzzled by how the throngs of tourists who visit Bethlehem do not become honest witnesses to the Israeli suffocation of a city that is so revered in Christian prayers the world over.
This disconnect is partly – but only partly – because tourists are transported by Israeli buses to spend just a day or so in Bethlehem, which must seem like little more than a theme park replete with natives to whom they feel no connection.
But it is hard to imagine that Western tourists are blind to the segregation wall and 17 Jewish settlements – established on land expropriated from the Palestinians – that choke the city from all sides.
This may sound harsh, but as someone who hails from a Christian family from Bethlehem, it is incomprehensible that 43 years of occupation and the confiscation of its land and displacement of its people have failed to pierce the consciousness of the Christian West.
Even in 2002 when Israel besieged Bethlehem, there was little movement in the West. While Israel pounded the city and terrorised its inhabitants, Western anger was directed at the Palestinian fighters who took refuge from the Israeli army in the Church of the Nativity.
The fact that the fighters were sons of Bethlehem families, that some of them were Christian and that to the residents of the city they were defenders confronting an invading army, was lost on a West marred by its hostility towards Muslims.
In 1994, The New York Times Magazine published an article by Jeffrey Goldberg about the arrival of “Allah” in Bethlehem. Although Allah simply means God in Arabic, in the explicitly racist article about the (limited) transition of power from Israel to the predominantly Muslim Palestinian Authority (PA), the word was used to convey a warning.
Goldberg spoke of the residents of the city, Muslim and Christian alike, with disdain, and while the article was an extreme example of support for Israel and disregard for Palestinians, it merely reflects the preconceived and media-reinforced biases that continue to prevent the Western public from associating Bethlehem with the wider concept of occupation.
But contrary to Goldberg’s scare-mongering, after the PA took over the administration of the city, Yasser Arafat, the late Palestinian president, established a tradition whereby the Palestinian president attends midnight mass on Christmas Eve and the PA moves its offices to Bethlehem for three weeks to share in the celebrations with Christians. Municipal elections later produced a mixed pro-Hamas Muslim and Christian council, although the tradition of electing a Christian mayor has endured as a symbol of Palestinian unity and diversity.
Watching and waiting
For years, its residents have watched the Israeli army wresting control of land in the city itself and the nearby villages that comprise the larger district of Bethlehem.
I recall visiting my aunt in the mid-1990s. As she pointed to Mount Abu Ghneim from her kitchen window, she told me: “The Israelis will take it over”.
She went on to explain that when they see men arriving with the protection of the Israeli army to start measuring the land, locals know what to expect. The bulldozers, again accompanied by the army, usually follow. Trees are uprooted and the ground is paved for a new settlement.
Sure enough that was exactly what happened just a few months later as a peaceful sit-in by activists and Palestinian members of the Legislative Council failed to stop the green top of Mount Abu Ghneim being replaced by the buildings of Har Homa settlement – a visible daily reminder of Israeli occupation.
With the settlements come the gradual take-over of yet more land on which Israel builds parallel, but more advanced, infrastructure to service the settlers – robbing the area of its natural resources in the process.
A recent study by Human Rights Watch cited the village of Jub Il Dib, in the district of Bethlehem, as an example of the devastating effect of racial discrimination as resources are channelled to the Jewish settlements that surround the Arab communities.
Tourists may not visit Jub Il Dib and may be excused for not knowing about what is happening there, but as they pass through the gate in Israel’s separation fence, they may get a glimpse of what life is like for the besieged residents of Bethlehem who must have a permit to cross that same wall into Jerusalem or neighbouring Palestinian towns.
Bethlehem is by no means unique in its suffering; Gaza is most certainly suffering the most stifling blockade inflicted upon the Palestinians. But as pilgrims enter Bethlehem’s Church of the Nativity, I hope that the religious sentiments that accompany their pilgrimage will open their eyes to the hardships experienced daily by the city’s residents – and to the Palestinian struggle for freedom and dignity.