Bethlehem, the birthplace of Jesus Christ, is perched atop a mountain that affords it spectacular views of the West Bank and Dead Sea. Just a couple of kilometres from Jerusalem, Bethlehem is essentially cut off from its surroundings. Walls, fortifications, checkpoints and other obstacles set up by Israel have turned the city into an island adrift in the heart of the West Bank.
Despite these physical obstacles, the city unites every year for Christmas festivities. In Manger Square, a large Christmas tree is lit in a grand ceremony that brings together politicians and groups from across the Palestinian political spectrum. In the cold and windy mountain air, Palestinians and their supporters from around the world come together to celebrate, and temporarily forget about the occupation that dominates their lives.
The city’s fortunes haven’t always been so dire. Back in the 1990s, when hope for the peace process was alive, tourists from around the world would flock to the city in the winter months. Eager to visit Christianity’s holy sites, tourists would make Bethlehem their home base for pilgrims around the West Bank and Jerusalem. The construction of Israel’s separation wall and the notorious “300” checkpoint that separates Bethlehem from Jerusalem put an end to this tourism boom.
Today, the city is stifled by high unemployment and a punishing urban reality. In no uncertain terms, Bethlehem can’t grow in an urban sense. It is ringed by 22 Israeli settlements – some of which could become part of Israel under the current right-wing government – and Israel’s elaborate matrix of checkpoints and barriers. Coupled with a shrinking tourism sector, Bethlehem’s prospects are dim.
The grim reality doesn’t dampen the Christmas spirit though. For two weeks every December, tourists brave the checkpoints, hotel rooms fill up and people enjoy festivities in Manger Square. For the past several years, the Palestinian Authority has lacked funds to help stage Bethlehem’s massive Christmas tree. Local businessmen of all faiths have stepped in to privately fund the celebrations in a warm gesture of multi-faith solidarity.
The eyes of the world will turn to the Church of the Nativity on Christmas Eve. For many, the plight of Bethlehem will only register in the back of their minds but it is critical to remember how the city suffers throughout the year under the crippling weight of Israel’s occupation. As the Israeli government moves steadily onward with efforts to entrench its control, the effects of the occupation can’t be avoided in Bethlehem.
For 2,000 years, the people of Bethlehem have celebrated this season with hope and a message of peace. This year will be no different, despite the ever growing restrictions placed on their movement. The city’s hope is needed now more than ever in the region and the world. If the people of Bethlehem can come together in unity and peace under such oppressive conditions, then there is still hope for the world.