Bethlehem, the city of peace and the birthplace of Jesus Christ, has become a ghetto in the world we know today thanks to the Israeli occupation. With over 23 physical barriers surrounding the city, apartheid wall cutting through its outskirts, and settlements strangling the city of Bethlehem from all directions, the idea of living there or even visiting this holy city has become an unpleasant and dreadful idea.
With recent plans to increase construction in Gilo and Har Homa illegal settlements, and with plans to build new settlement Givat Yael, It has become inevitable that Bethlehem will no longer be connected to its twin city Jerusalem and will instead be entrapped within series of Israeli settlements surrounding Bethlehem from all sides. Israel is seeking to engulf and annex every valuable piece of land in Bethlehem; an example is the Cremisan Monastery near Bet Jala where residents are struggling to prevent Israeli authorities from confiscating more land by holding an outdoor weekly mass to protest the land grab and the building of the apartheid wall by Israel.
Even if the ugly wall which surrounds Bethlehem is to be demolished one day, the reality of Bethlehem becoming a ghetto is unavoidable with the continued speedy building in surrounding settlements like Betar Illit and Har Homa to the West, and Gilo, Har Hamatos, and Givat Yael to the North and East.
Development and expansion in Bethlehem is diminishing on a hasty pace too, which is prompting its residents to abandon this city. Only 13% of Bethlehem lies within Palestinian-controlled Area A and Israeli-Palestinian controlled Area B, the rest lies in Israeli-controlled Area C. Palestinian projects and construction in Area C have been difficult or impossible so far. Israeli settlements are expanding in Bethlehem’s Northern areas and are rapidly engulfing whatever is in their way, including what was once the valley where it is said that angels have announced the birth of Jesus Christ to three local shepherds. In October 2011, Israeli government has approved plans to build 2600 units in Givat Hamatos illegal settlement north of Bethlehem which will result in Isolating Bethlehem and fully dividing it from its historic twin, Jerusalem.
You’d think Bethlehem is a cheerful city at the time of Christmas holidays, but it’s not. While most Palestinian Christians from Gaza aren’t allowed entry to Bethlehem, Palestinian Christians from the West Bank have to take long routes across mountains and valleys like “Wadi Al-Nar” pass, and pass through many heinous Israeli road blocks to reach the city. Residents of Jerusalem have supposedly the easiest access through Bethlehem-Jerusalem road, but they too have to go through the humiliation at Israeli checkpoints. Tourists who arrive with Israeli tourism companies reach Bethlehem via buses which do not even go through or stop at Israeli checkpoints.
The Israeli Ministry of Tourism issues videos and puts up banners on the Bethlehem-Jerusalem road wishing Christians a merry Christmas, one banner hung at the Israeli military checkpoint controlling movement between Bethlehem and Jerusalem reads, “We wish you a Merry Christmas and a Happy New Year. From the Israel Ministry of Tourism”. But you can clearly see through their hypocrisy as soon as you enter the city of Bethlehem and understand the negative effect continued occupation has on this city.
Palestinian artist, Rana Bishara from Galilee, has worked on and created a concrete Christmas tree. The tree was named “The Wall Tree” to symbolize the wall that surrounds the city of Bethlehem. The tree was decorated with barbed wire, tear gas canisters, and other occupation symbols.
We are living in a not-so-Holy Land, at least not anymore. Today, it is easier for an American tourist to access Holy Sites in the Holy Land than for a Holy Land Christian or Muslim. On this Christmas, thousands of Christian families will not be able to visit relatives beyond the West Bank or Gaza; they won’t be able to reach holy sites in Nazareth or the Baptismal Site on the Jordan River. This land has become an exclusive Holy Land; it is a myth that people from all the monotheistic religions are practicing their faith freely. Bethlehem is only a sample of the injustice faced by Palestinian Christians and Muslims, the illegal Israeli practices stretch to harm all Palestinians living on this land.
Merry Christmas and Happy New Year!