Little Town of Bethlehem is Littler Now

Even Santa Claus is protesting the walling off of Bethlehem. Some 15 percent of the 10 million Palestinians is Christian, and they are after all the original Christians. Bethlehem has a special place in their hearts because it is the birthplace of Jesus in Christian belief.

Most Americans when polled are not able to say where exactly Bethlehem is or who lives there. Only 1 in 6 know that it is a Palestinian city of 30,000 in the West Bank with a mixed Christian (40%) and Muslim (60%) population. Almost no one in the US knows that the Israeli wall or separation barrier, which has ghettoized many Palestinians and expropriated from them property and farm land, is strangling Bethlehem. The barrier cuts Bethlehem off from Jerusalem and steals private property from its residents. It has created an economic crisis that has caused Palestinian Christians to emigrate from the city. The “Christians of Bethlehem overwhelmingly (78%) blame the exodus of Christians from the town on Israel’s blockade . . .”

Bethlehem at Christmas (Life, Dmitri Kessel)

VOA reports:

‘ Palestinian boy and girl scouts marched through Manger Square in Bethlehem, kicking off Christmas Eve celebrations. They marched past the Church of the Nativity, the traditional birthplace of Jesus, with Palestinian flags waving overhead. . . Palestinians complain about Israel’s massive security barrier surrounding Bethlehem. Jihan Anistas is the director of the Bethlehem Peace Center. “The city of peace is encircled by the wall. It is a monster that is killing the city of Bethlehem. It is an open prison. I prefer to say it is a cage,” said Anistas.’

Bethlehem at Christmas (Life, Dmitri Kessel)

Kim Sengupta and Donald Macintyre report that the tourist economy has improved somewhat this year, but that the Israeli checkpoints reduce the numbers of tourists staying in hotels in the city where Christ was born to a sixth of what they could be. As the poll cited above suggests, a small part (11%) of the problems Christians have in the city have to do with occasional tiffs with Muslim neighbors. But the Wall and Israeli policies of economic strangulation of the Palestinians are the big problem.

John Kelly explains the way the separation barrier built by the Israelis and the checkpoints they have surrounded the city with are strangling Bethlehem University:

‘the Palestinians are being treated like scum by the Israeli guards. Bethlehem resembles a ghetto where the local population is not permitted by the Israeli authorities to leave by the main roads. Illegal though it is by United Nations Charter and the International Bill of Human Rights, this is occupied territory, and it is a very hostile occupation. The distance from Bethlehem to Jerusalem is some 10km, but Palestinians must take a 26km secondary dirt road passing through Israeli checkpoints which are often closed with no warning or explanation. Palestinians in the West Bank are not permitted to enter Jerusalem without a date- and time-limited pass from the Israeli Defence Force (IDF) – more often than not refused. This has made the operation of the small but very courageous Bethlehem University very difficult.’

Aljazeera English reports on the hardships imposed on Bethlehem’s residents, including its Christians, by the Israeli separation barrier, by nearby illegal settlements by Israeli squatters in the West Bank, and by house demolitions conducted by Israeli security forces.

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