What’s it Like—When Bethlehem’s Palestinians Participate in The Ritual of Jesus’ Birth Today? Reflections on An Occupied Palestinian Town—Then and Now
By: John Mason/ Arab America Contributing Writer
In this, the last post on the historic town of Bethlehem, the town of Jesus’ birth, we look at issues of Palestinians who live in or near this holy town today. Previously we discussed the problems faced by the holy family if they were to seek refuge there today or the Wise Men if they tried to visit in 2020. Our focus on Christianity is linked to the historical importance of Bethlehem to Christians and to the occasion of Christmas being just around the corner.
Bethlehem: Then and Now
In the earlier posts, we saw how the Bible depicted Mary and Joseph’s journey to Bethlehem, where they were not welcomed. We saw how King Herod was frightened by the birth of the ‘King of the Jews’ and how he responded by decreeing the murder of all boys in the area under the age of two.
When the Wise Men visited with Herod in Jerusalem, he “sent them to Bethlehem with instructions to report back to him when the infant was found so that he could ‘worship him’ too…Rather than return to Herod to report Jesus’ location, the Wise Men returned to their own country using a different route. They had been warned against returning to Herod in a dream.” Herod had other things in mind for the baby Jesus—and it did not include worshipping him.
Today, Palestinian life under Israeli occupation may remind us of Roman times, when their ancestors lived under the control of the Empire. Bethlehem is besieged then as it is now, surrounded on three sides by a 25-foot-high concrete wall. The wall is justified to keep Palestinian fighters out of Israel. As suggested in the earlier post, Jesus’ birth in Bethlehem would be difficult today, perhaps being disallowed in the town itself because of the attention it might attract.
The occupying authorities also control the foreign visitors who come to Bethlehem today to relive the Christian story of the birth. Palestinians living in the town are already living under the control of Israeli authorities who occupy the West Bank, including Bethlehem.
A brief summary of Bethlehem’s history depicts it as one of the oldest Christian communities in the world. Palestinian Christians who live in the occupied West Bank and Gaza are mostly Greek Orthodox, followed by Roman Catholics, Armenian Orthodox, Copts, Episcopalians, and several other, smaller sects. These Christians live mainly in East Jerusalem, Bethlehem, Ramallah, and Nablus. They make up only 2% of the West Bank and Gaza populations since many have emigrated due to the difficulties of living under military occupation.
Palestinian Christians suffer from the same restrictions on movement applying to all Palestinians, who’ve had to endure Israel’s 45-year-long military rule. Furthermore, Palestinians of whatever faith must tolerate the approximately 500,000 Jewish settlers whose illegal settlements surround them.
Palestinian Survival under a Touristic Regime in the Occupied West Bank
Although thousands of foreigners visit Bethlehem every Christmas, Palestinians who live there are struggling to survive. This is according to a report by Vox.com, which noted that the town of Bethlehem and the Palestinian Authority have been investing significant funds to rebuild the cobbled road believed to be trodden upon by Mary and Joseph. The hope has been to revitalize the commercial center of downtown Bethlehem, which is now often deserted, its storefronts closed. This part of the town is mostly bypassed by visitors, who are mainly interested in paying homage to the grotto where Jesus was born, and the church built above the grotto, the Church of the Nativity.
When Israeli settlements expanded in the 1990s and the Israeli Defense Force invaded many West Bank cities, life changed radically for the Palestinians. It became even more difficult for the Palestinians when the second intifada or uprising broke out. That conflict and Israeli curfews drove pilgrims and tourists away, while local hotels, restaurants, and souvenir shops went out of business.
After several years, Bethlehem has finally found a way, according to Vox, “to claw its way back as a tourist destination.” A new excitement exists in Bethlehem, following the announcement of the return from the Vatican of a wooden relic believed to have been a piece of the manger in which Jesus was born. Expectations are that this return will draw many more tourists and pilgrims.
Despite such optimism, also following Vox, “…experts say Israel’s mushrooming settlements in the West Bank and its separation wall, which divides Bethlehem from Jerusalem — its historical sister city — have restricted access to the city and devastated the local economy. We are living in ‘a touristic prison.’ Yes, we get lots of tourism, but for the Palestinian people, it’s pretty much a prison,” said Suhail Khalilieh, head of the Settlements Monitoring Department at the Applied Research Institute (ARI) — Jerusalem, a nonprofit based in Bethlehem.
Palestinians on life in the holy city of Bethlehem— “We are being suffocated”
Israeli settlements dominate the landscape of Bethlehem with 23 such Jewish settlements housing about 165,000 and occupying over eight square miles. This contrasts with some 200,000 Palestinians living in and around Bethlehem who are confined to 13% of its total land. According to ARI’s Khalilieh, this allows no room for Palestinians to expand to or build on. This situation has led to extreme unemployment, low incomes and a high cost of living. “We are being suffocated in terms of where and how we live, so the thought of immigrating is not far off from the minds of many people,” Khalilieh pronounced.
One complaint of Bethlehem’s Palestinians is that tourism is confined mainly to the Christmas season. They would prefer that tourists extend beyond that season and stay longer. One restaurant owner said, “People spend four hours in Bethlehem. What’s the impact on the economy? Nothing. Actually, there’s one impact: garbage, because people spend four hours here and the impact on the environment and the economy is, they leave their trash.”
Another critique is that tourists are interested only in visiting the Christian sites of the nativity, namely the Church of the Nativity. They show little curiosity in what’s happening in the town itself, including getting to know some of the people of Bethlehem and how they live in such a highly revered but controlled environment.
Do these Christian Pilgrims care anything about the Palestinians living under Israeli occupation? Do they ever wonder what Jesus would have made of the Palestinian-Israeli conflict? What happens to these pilgrims’ spirituality? After all, they do have to cross Israeli checkpoints, pass by the walls surrounding three sides of Bethlehem, and witness the two refugee camps. As one local expressed, “Is this what it means to follow in Jesus’ footsteps?” Another local went as far as to exclaim, “We are living in a touristic prison!”
This is not meant in any way to spoil the spirit of the Christmas season. It is only intended to place the homeland of Christianity in a realistic context and to help us think about how the main protagonist in this story, Jesus, would react to contemporary problems in Palestine and what he might advise us on their resolution.
“Bethlehem: Then and Now,” Rev. Dr. Mitri Raheb, Redletter Christians newsletter, 12/3/2012
“Palestinian Christians, Bethlehem & East Jerusalem,” Institute for Middle East Understanding, 3/23/2013
“We are living in a touristic prison: Palestinians on life in the holy city of Bethlehem,” Dalia Hatuqa, Vox.com 12/23/2019
John Mason, PhD., who focuses on Arab culture, society, and history, is the author of LEFT-HANDED IN AN ISLAMIC WORLD: An Anthropologist’s Journey into the Middle East, New Academia Publishing, 2017. He has taught at the University of Libya, Benghazi, Rennselaer Polytechnic Institute in New York, and the American University in Cairo; John served with the United Nations in Tripoli, Libya, and consulted extensively on socioeconomic and political development for USAID, the UN, and the World Bank in 65 countries.
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