Tragic tale of the historic town that is slowly dying

The Palestinian flag flutters in front of the Church of the Nativity in Bethlehem. Photo: Musa Al Shaer / AFP
The Palestinian flag flutters in front of the Church of the Nativity in Bethlehem. Photo: Musa Al Shaer / AFP

Bethlehem has always loomed large in our imagination, especially at Christmas. For generations, the feelings evoked by this town have been captured in multiple art forms, serving to inspire believers and non-believers.

For those who do not know the place, Bethlehem is full of mystery. It is the peaceful little town that played an outsize role in history. Sadly, in reality, all of this is but a fantasy. The pressures of daily life confronted by the residents paint a very different portrait.

Suffering under an Israeli military occupation since 1967, Bethlehem is being strangled. It has lost land to settlement construction, been hemmed in by a concrete wall, stripped of its resources and denied access to external markets. As a result, 35 per cent of Bethlehem’s people live below the poverty line.

Before the occupation, thousands of Palestinians in Bethlehem were employed as craftsmen known for their olive-wood and mother-of-pearl artefacts. Today, denied the ability to freely export, that industry employs only a few hundred. Similarly, Bethlehem’s tourism has suffered. Israeli companies that dominate that field bring tourists to stay in hotels in areas they control, making day trips to Bethlehem’s holy places. The crowds come to the town, but the revenues go to the Israelis.

The town has lost so much land to settlement construction that it must build vertically. As a result, what is left of Bethlehem has become overcrowded.

Israeli leaders often complain that they must expand their settlements further so that their young can find housing. And they insist that they must continue to build their wall, to protect their people. What they do not say is that the expansion of the mammoth projects at Har Homa, Gilo, Har Gilo, Betar Ilit, Giva’ot, and more are occurring at the expense of Palestinians living in Bethlehem. The Israelis call these colonies “neighbourhoods of Jerusalem”. This is but a crude effort to obfuscate the reality that they are all built on Bethlehem area land. 

As a result, Palestinians now retain only tenuous control of 13 per cent of the Bethlehem region. In fact, the 22 Israeli settlements built in the Bethlehem region, the roads that connect them and the wall that surround them were all built on land taken from Palestinians. And the expansion plans simply mean that more land will be taken, leaving less for Palestinians.

Look at a map and you will see that Bethlehem is only a few miles from Jerusalem. Only 20 years ago, standing near Manger Square, one could look out over a green space, the hill of Jabal Abul Ghnaim, and see the Holy City. The trip, by car, was only 15 to 20 minutes. Today, that view has been obliterated by the wall, and that green space is now the site of the monstrous concrete settlement of Har Homa – home to 25,000 Israelis. The entire population of Bethlehem has been cut off from Jerusalem.

Today, the Palestinian population of the Bethlehem region is 210,000. There are more than 110,000 Israeli settlers, with plans to double that number. Facing this human onslaught, Palestinians have taken their case to the World Court which ruled that the settlements and the wall are illegal. In response, Israel acts with impunity continuing to build, to move its people onto Palestinian land, and to take still more land.

Looming large over the lives of Bethlehemites is the Israeli plan to extend the wall in the north through one of the region’s last remaining green spaces. This portion of the wall is designed to zigzag along a path that will cut through the vineyards and olive orchards of the Convent at Cremisan, separating the children of Beit Jala from their school, and confiscating land owned by 54 Palestinian families. Once completed, the wall will allow the Israelis to expand and connect two settlements of Gilo and Har Gilo. It is, as described by Bethlehem’s mayor, Vera Baboun, “the final knot in the noose around the neck of Bethlehem”.

All this is happening while Christians in the West blissfully sing of the “peaceful little town”. More disturbing is the degree to which policymakers and those who should know better deliberately turn a deaf ear to Palestinian appeals for recognition of their plight.

Meanwhile, in Bethlehem, hope gives way to despair and thoughts of peace to feelings of anger. Attention must be paid to this tragedy.

Just for a moment, think of Bethlehem as it is today. Imagine what you would feel if you lived there and saw your land taken to make way for homes and roads for another people.

And imagine how you would feel if your sons and daughters were forced into exile to find employment, to make way for the sons and daughters of another people who have come to live on your land. Then listen carefully and hear the cry of the people of that little town.

Dr James Zogby is the president of the Arab American Institute

On Twitter: @aaiusa

Published: December 27, 2014 04:00 AM


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