x Abu Dhabi, UAEFriday 21 July 2017

Week in review: Christmas in the Palestinian Territories

As Christians around the world celebrate Christmas, the town where Jesus was born has become a place of sorrow. Most visitors from overseas stay for less than two hours and most tourism revenue goes to Israel. Bethlehem, home to one of the world's oldest Christian communities is now a virtual prison within which its residents are cut off from their land and from Jerusalem by the Israeli separation wall.

As Christians around the world celebrate Christmas, the town where Jesus was born has become a place of sorrow. Most visitors from overseas stay for less than two hours and most of the revenue from tourism goes to Israel. Bethlehem, home to one of the world's oldest Christian communities is now a virtual prison within which its residents are cut off from their land and from Jerusalem by the Israeli separation wall. Austen Ivereigh wrote: "The town has become a ghetto, severed from lands to the north and west by the wall, and to the south and east by settler-only roads and a forest of checkpoints, leaving it barely able to trade. Hundreds of acres of land has been confiscated from Christian Arabs in the name of security; Jerusalem, Bethlehem's lifeline, a mere 20-minute drive away, is now barred to West Bank Arabs; unemployment in Bethlehem is above 50 percent. That strangulation, and that alone, is the reason why Christians make up just a third of the district's population. The wonder is that so many stay. "But they do, because they are one of the world's oldest Christian populations, and this is their land. The corralled Bethlehemites see, every day, what is happening: see the high-rise white blocks which the Israelis are furiously building on land seized from their families, watch as settlers in Gilo and Har Homa hose down their cars and fill their swimming pools while they are forced to buy water weekly from trucks to fill rooftop tanks because the Israelis have diverted the water supply. They watch, they wait, they burn with anger and frustration, and are helpless to understand why the world has abandoned them." In The National, Omar Karmi reported from Gaza City: "This year, the 3,000-strong Christian community faces severe restrictions on who can leave Gaza for Christmas. "According to Gaza's Archbishopry, and contrary to Israeli claims that this Christmas hundreds of Gazan Christians would be allowed 'free access' to Bethlehem, the Israeli authorities have decided that just 200 names can be put forward for travel permits. These, in turn, will be granted only to those over 35, an age restriction in place since Hamas won parliamentary elections in 2006." The Guardian described how Bethlehem's historical identity is now shaped by its current condition. "The shelves of Bethlehem's tourist shops this winter are filled with the gifts you might expect. There are countless carved olive-wood crucifixes, angels and last suppers. But there are also unexpected nativity scenes complete with Joseph, Mary, crib, wise men and large Israeli concrete wall with military watchtower. "Israel's vast separation barrier is at its most prominent around Bethlehem. Here it is a tall concrete wall that crosses into the occupied West Bank, runs up tight against the Palestinian city and cuts it off from much of its farmland. For Palestinians it has become one of the most striking symbols of Israel's 42-year military occupation. "In some of these modern interpretations of the nativity the wall cuts through the centre of the scene, dividing wise men and camels from the crib. At the Holy Land Arts Museum, on Bethlehem's Manager Square, the Giacaman family sells a different version, carved carefully to scale with three slices of wall and a looming watchtower." The Daily Telegraph reported: "Israel has been accused of deliberately impoverishing Bethlehem by ensuring tourists visiting the town spend as little as possible. "Palestinian officials claim they have been prevented from benefiting from a record 1.4 million foreign visitors to the occupied West Bank's most important tourist attraction. "They claim Israeli tour guides play on tourists' fears by warning them that they face danger as soon as they enter the area. "Thousands of foreign tourists and pilgrims visit each day to see the Church of the Nativity, which is considered by some Christians to mark the exact spot where Jesus was born. But in Manger Square, souvenir stallholders and hawkers can only watch as prospective buyers go in and out of the church 100 yards away. " 'Despite being so close, few tourists ever wander as far as the stalls because they have been convinced that they have reason to fear,' according to hawkers. "Those visitors who do venture into the markets have often left their credit cards and wallets in their hotel rooms, sellers claim. "Western embassies assure their nationals that it is safe to stay in Bethlehem, but fewer than 30 per cent of visitors choose to spend the night in the city. "Palestinian officials say Israel's tactics are the result of a perception of Arabs as second class citizens and a desire to corner most of the lucrative tourism market for itself." In his annual Christmas message, Jerusalem's Latin patriarch Fuad Twal, the Latin rite Roman Catholic archbishop of Israel and Palestine, said on Tuesday: "Our dreams for a reconciled Holy Land seem to be utopia. Despite the praiseworthy efforts of politicians and men of good will to find a solution to the ongoing conflict, all of us, Palestinians and Israelis, have all failed in achieving peace." Citing the ways in which dreams have failed to bear fruit he said: "Palestinians still do not have their own state where they can live in peace and harmony with their Israeli neighbours; they still suffer from occupation, difficult economical situation, destruction of houses in East Jerusalem and internal divisions, thousands of persons living in Jerusalem or Gaza or the Palestinian Territories are waiting for family reunion; one year after Gaza war, Gaza still suffers from economical siege, lack of freedom of movement and from the contamination of its sea and water, which endangers the health of 1.5 million citizens among which 50 per cent are under the age of 14. Ma'an reported: "the patriarch urged his followers not to give up hope. " 'Hope means not giving in to evil, but rather standing up to it,' he said, quoting from a documents signed recently by Palestinian Christian leaders calling for resistance to the Israeli occupation and rejecting Christian Zionism. "The Kairos Palestine document, modeled after a 1985 document issued by South African Christian leaders calling for an end to Apartheid, declared the Israeli occupation 'a sin'." Palestinian Christian leaders, representing churches and church-related organisations, launched a campaign earlier this month aimed at enlisting Christians worldwide in proactive efforts to end the Israeli occupation of Palestinian territories. Khaled Amayreh reporting from Bethlehem for Al Ahram Weekly said: "The unprecedented initiative, called Kairos Palestine-2009: A moment of truth, appeals to churches worldwide to treat Israel in the same way they had treated the erstwhile South African apartheid regime. "The authors of the 13-page document include such religious leaders as Patriarch Emeritus Michel Sabbah from the Latin Patriarchate of Jerusalem, the Lutheran Bishop of Jerusalem Munib Younan, Archbishop of Sebastia Atallah Hanna from the Greek Orthodox Patriarchate, as well as the heads of various denominations in occupied Palestine. " 'We, Palestinian Christians, declare in this historic document that the military occupation of our land is a sin against God and humanity and that any theology that legitimises the occupation is far from Christian teachings because true Christian theology is a theology of love and solidarity with the oppressed and a call to justice and equality among peoples,' reads the document. "The authors said they hoped that the document would raise the conscience of Christians worldwide on the enduring Palestinian plight. 'We hope, as Palestinian Christians, that this document will be the leverage for the efforts of all peace-loving peoples in the world, especially our Christian sisters and brothers. We hope that it will be welcomed positively and will receive strong support, as was the case with the South Africa Kairos document launched.'"

pwoodward@thenational.ae