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Bethlehem: Living Between Tear Gas and Christmas Ornaments

THE LEVANT NEWS — By Zeina Azzam* — “During the Christmas season, while the Palestinian community, comprising Christians and Muslims, was celebrating the lighting of the Christmas tree on manger square, young Palestinians, who were demonstrating their longing for freedom, were shot at, wounded, and some even killed by re-invading soldiers of the Israeli occupation. Two contradictory phenomena are so poignantly met in Bethlehem, as we continue to live between tear gas and Christmas ornaments, between shattered hopes and resilient faith.”

Rev. Mitri Raheb, pastor of Christmas Lutheran Church in Bethlehem, penned these words as his Christmas message this year. He also cited this line from the carol, “O Little Town of Bethlehem”: “The hopes and fears of all the years are met in thee tonight.”

For the West Bank city of Bethlehem, believed to be the birthplace of Jesus, the juxtaposition of hopes and fears is the stuff of everyday life. That Palestinians of all faiths in Bethlehem and throughout the West Bank, Jerusalem, Gaza, Israel, and the diaspora hold onto hope and have faith in a better future is a challenging feat indeed. Starting with the violent dislocation of three-quarters of a million Palestinians in 1948, Israel’s military occupation in 1967 of the West Bank, Gaza, and East Jerusalem, and a number of major wars, military assaults, and oppressive policies, Palestinians have endured lifetimes of injustice.

In their latest expression of frustration at Israel’s military occupation, Palestinians are facing deepening and brutal policies of suppression. Between October 2 and December 18, 2015, in the occupied territories, 121 Palestinians (men, women, and minors) were killed by Israeli forces, police officers, and settlers, and thousands have been injured. Several of the dead hailed from Bethlehem and its three refugee camps, Dheisheh, Aida, and Beit Jibrin—all of which were established soon after the Nakba in 1948.

In the Western imagination, the “little town of Bethlehem” is a romanticized, mythological town that appears on Christmas cards and is usually depicted by a bucolic nativity scene with wise men, animals, Mary, Joseph, Jesus in a manger, and a bright star above all. In reality, Bethlehem is a besieged city surrounded by a 26-foot-high wall erected on much of its perimeter. This imposing edifice prevents many farmers from getting to their land and restricts residents from performing everyday actions, like going to school or work. By the time it is completed, 56 kilometers of this barrier—which many call the apartheid wall—will leave 12 communities physically separated from the rest of Bethlehem.

Fully 85 percent of the Governorate of Bethlehem is classified as part of Area C—under complete Israeli control in all security and civil matters. In addition, there are 19 settlements—illegal according to international law and officially opposed by the U.S. government—surrounding the governorate which house over 100,000 Israeli settlers. In the last three months, there were 39 incidents of settler violence in Bethlehem—these are cases that involve assault, raids, destruction of property, abductions, injuries, and other aggressive acts perpetrated against Palestinians by Israeli settlers. Settler violence goes largely unpunished, so settlers feel they have tacit impunity for their actions.

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In March of 2014 Pope Francis visited the West Bank and made a surprise stop in Bethlehem to pray at the separation wall. Many Palestinians interpreted his gesture as a nod to Palestinian suffering. One Palestinian Catholic witnessing the event said, “He is trying to tell the world what is happening to Palestinians is so unfair… We are dying inside.”

Challenging circumstances require creative responses, as in a bold move on December 18 by Bethlehem Palestinians who dressed up as Santa Clauses and marched to the separation wall. “For Christmas I want every child back home,” they chanted, referring to the growing number of Palestinian children whom Israeli soldiers have arrested in the last two months.

A January 2015 report by the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs concluded that “Israeli policies and practices applied since the beginning of the occupation, which have accelerated in recent years, have resulted in the increasing fragmentation of the Bethlehem governorate and its population.” The policies include land seizure, settlement building, restrictions on physical and administrative access, inadequate planning and zoning, and ineffective enforcement of the law on Israeli settlers. The result is a vulnerable population living in a fragmented physical and social space.

Like Rev. Mitri Raheb, Bethlehem’s mayor, Vera Baboun, also characterizes Bethlehem as having contradictory identities: “Bethlehem, the Palestinian city under siege, and Bethlehem, the universal city of the message of peace,” she says. This Christmas season, as Christians the world over sing of Baby Jesus’s little town of Bethlehem, they must also remember that this city remains under a crippling Israeli occupation. There will be no meaningful peace in Bethlehem as long as the Palestinians there have to live with the wall, settlements, and an unrelenting military chokehold.

*Zeina Azzam is executive director of The Jerusalem Fund and its educational program, the Palestine Center. The views expressed are her own.

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