Bethlehem: The ‘little town’ the world forgot
The “little town” marks time itself; the common era began there 2,019 years ago, and nearly every date refers to the place, although we give it such little consideration except during the Christmas season.
In the streets of Bethlehem now, little shines in the darkness. Back then it was not clear Bethlehem was a walled town. It is now. The Christmas story simply could not happen, as traveling the 160km to there from Nazareth is possible only if you are Israeli or otherwise non-Palestinian, cut off as the town is by walls, fences, checkpoints and illegal Israeli settlements. Bethlehem is overcrowded, but (unlike in the Christmas story) there are plenty of rooms in its underused hotels. It is still a refuge, with three crammed camps hosting about 20,000 Palestine refugees.
Bethlehem is suffused with history. Less than 10km south of Jerusalem, it always played a key role in the region. It formed an umbilical link with Jerusalem as its primary water source, so nearly every invading army captured Bethlehem first. Situated on a ridge, it marked the transition from the green hills of the West Bank to the Judean desert, from the Roman world to that of the East. It was both an agricultural center and a trading post on the ancient Hebron road. In 1847, the theft of a silver star from the grotto in the Church of the Nativity helped to start the Crimean War seven years later.
For a location that nearly every child has heard of, few have actually visited. Today, Bethlehem’s tragic treatment is brushed off and ignored. In churches across the world, carols about the city are sung in front of a manger in a stable. The Vatican has just permitted a tiny thumb-size fragment of what many believe to be a part of Jesus’s makeshift crib to return to Bethlehem for this year’s Christmas celebrations. Most of the relic remains in Rome.
But how many even know Bethlehem is a Palestinian town? Today, it is cut off from most of its agricultural lands. Its famous olive oil is no longer produced in sufficient quantities to be exported. Many even erroneously think it is in Israel. How many know its 25,000 Palestinian inhabitants live under a belligerent 52-year-old occupation, hemmed in by a wall, surrounded by 42 settlements with a population of 100,000 armed Israeli settlers.
How many know Bethlehem’s 25,000 Palestinian inhabitants live under a belligerent 52-year-old occupation, hemmed in by a wall, surrounded by 42 settlements with a population of 100,000 armed Israeli settlers.
I once stood in the center of Manger Square with a senior British politician, who whispered in my ear: “Remind me, what went on here?” I get a small kick out of leading such grand figures into the ancient church through the “door of humility,” so called because it is less than a meter high so you have to stoop to enter.
Not everyone is content to allow the real Bethlehem, as opposed to the Christmas-story one of carols and mangers, to be forgotten and ignored.
Across Bethlehem, the street artist Banksy has left his mark with works of art. For 2019, he has created “the scar of Bethlehem,” a nativity scene with Joseph, Mary and Jesus lying at the foot of the wall, with a huge shell hole above them.
The work is hosted in the Walled Off Hotel, the one Banksy designed. It is one of the most remarkable I have ever visited. Its mix of unique design and luxury is offset by what the hotel describes as “the worst view of any hotel in the world.” It lies in the immediate shadow of the giant 8-meter slabs of pre-cast concrete that form Israel’s separation wall. An Israeli watchtower is visible. Access to the roof is forbidden without the permission of the Israeli army, even though you are in a town run in theory by the Palestinian Authority.
The reality is that Israel is very much in control. It has consistently thwarted and limited the numbers of tourists visiting the town, particularly overnight. The Palestinian president has a helipad in Bethlehem, but of course cannot use it with the overlord’s permission. Israel refused permission for nearly all the Palestinian Christians from Gaza who applied to go to Bethlehem and Jerusalem this year. So much for freedom of religion.
The Israeli occupation is never static. Under one of the “doomsday settlement” plans, called E2, Bethlehem would be effectively cut off from the rest of the southern part of the West Bank. To enable this, a settlement outpost at Givat Eitam on the lands of the village of Al-Nahla is being converted to a formal settlement. Overall, only 13 percent of the entire Bethlehem governorate’s land is available for Palestinian use.
The settlements to the east of Bethlehem used to be considered out on the periphery; most assumed until recently that they were destined to be given up in any two-state solution. No longer. A new road nicknamed the Lieberman road (after the former Israeli defense minister who lives in one of the settlements at Nokdim) ensures a commute to Jerusalem of just 10 minutes. Since 2008, when this road was opened, the population in these settlements has roughly doubled.
The myth of Bethlehem grows in the Western imagination as the reality shrinks in the global consciousness. Unless something is done soon, the real Bethlehem, the one with living people, will be left to fester in a long-forgotten backwater. It’s time for some wise men to step forward. It may need more than three.
- Chris Doyle is director of the London-based Council for Arab-British Understanding. Twitter: @Doylech