04 Aug O Fragile Town of Bethlehem
Before heading to Bethlehem I spent an hour in the Old City of Jerusalem drinking Turkish coffee at the entrance to the Dome of the Rock as I watched thousands of devout Muslims pour in for afternoon prayers, sajjada in hand. I then exited the Muslim quarter through the Damascus Gate and caught sherut 124 to the security checkpoint. Twenty minutes later I arrive at the checkpoint, a huge facility that serves as the principal entrance point for what used to be the main artery for Palestinian workers living in Bethlehem and working in Jerusalem. Palestinians still lucky enough to have a pass to work in Jerusalem wait in lines starting at 4 a.m. My experience was a bit different: a quick flash of an American passport, a brief nod from security, and one minute later I clear gates, fences, and a giant wall and enter the little town of Bethlehem.
My host is a highly-educated Palestinian Christian who is actively engaged in interfaith peace negotiations. His charge was twofold: provide a private tour of the holy sites and offer his unadulterated version of the impact the security barrier has had on the people of Bethlehem. He was clearly quite sympathetic to the Palestinian cause. Here are some of the highlights:
First, the holy sites. The holy sites are well-maintained and open to tourists, with one notable exception. The Shepherd’s Field and the Church of the Nativity are fabulous and tourism continues apace at those sites. Rachel’s Tomb, however, is another matter. When the security wall was built Israel divided Bethlehem and annexed Rachel’s Tomb. Jewish tourists can now easily access the third-holiest Jewish site, but Christians and Muslims no longer have access to it from the Palestinian side. I would hazard that most Christians visiting Bethlehem will spend the day at the Shepherd’s Field and the Church of the Nativity without appreciating the political sensitivity that the annexation of Rachel’s Tomb has created in Palestine.
Second, the housing displacement. Standing at Shepherd’s Field, my guide pointed to his house in the distance and said that, although it was built well before the security barrier, it is subject to a destruction order because it is situated too close to the wall. When I asked what compensation is paid for the destruction of homes too close to the wall, he laughed and said, “Nothing.” There are numerous stories on the Internet of homes that are surrounded by the security barrier. The security wall is creating new displacements as residents are forced to leave if their home just happens to be in the path of the wall.
Third, the economic displacement. It was difficult to find an Israeli who did not support the security barrier. Terrorism is down and a sense of normalcy in Israel prevails. But at the same time, it was difficult to avoid the impression that Bethlehem has suffered significant economic displacement from the security barrier. The benefits of the wall are enjoyed by Israelis while the costs are borne by villages such as Bethlehem. My host discussed numerous examples of the severe economic hardship that the security barrier has created. “Their goal is to strangle Bethlehem economically so it will become a vast wasteland,” he feared. I doubt that is the goal, but it may have that unintended effect.
Fourth, religious displacement. Christian Palestinians in Bethlehem are caught in the middle. From the Israeli perspective, the wall is about security and protection against terrorism. But not a single Palestinian Christian has committed a terrorist attack in Israel. Palestinian Christians represent the collateral damage of the fight between Muslims and Jews. And matters will not improve on this front. In 1948, over 90 percent of all residents of Bethlehem were Christian. Today the number is below 35 percent. Many speculate that in fifteen years there will be no Christians left in Bethlehem.
Fifth, the quality of life. My host finished our day with a tour of the Aida refugee camp. This camp has been in existence since 1948 to house the refugees removed from villages in Israel and relocated to the West Bank. A wall mural displays the names of all the villages in Israel that were home to the refugees. Just outside the UN school is the security barrier. “The children used to play in the olive grove just on the other side of this wall. Now they play in these alleys.” Driving through the village one senses a pervasive feeling of economic despair. Quality of life is low in Bethlehem, much lower than one would expect from a town that hosts some of the holiest sites in the world.
In short, I left Bethlehem feeling that the town was fragile and broken. There are bright spots, like this campaign to save Bethlehem. But I genuinely fear for the city’s future. One’s peaceful childish image of Bethlehem is shattered by a visit to the town. As Professor Mary Ann Weston recently put it, “The reality of life in Bethlehem today confounds the traditions of the Christmas story: How could the shepherds, abiding in their fields beyond the wall, visit the Christ child? And what about the Magi? Would they have the proper travel documents to enter Bethlehem? Would their gold, frankincense and myrrh be confiscated at a checkpoint? In the troubled “little town” of Bethlehem, the angels’ song of “Peace on Earth” seems faint indeed.”