Book Review: Bethlehem Besieged

Palestinians should have the permission to narrate their own lives, their own hopes, their own history. Putting tragedies, events and experiences into words help ease turmoil and defuse the terror. Writing provides a sense of control and a sense of understanding. For some, writing is a struggle, a matter of survival. As eyewitnesses of tomorrow’s news, we cannot hope to understand what is going on without access to alternative information resources.

The compelling stories of Mitri Raheb, a Palestinian Christian pastor of the Evangelical Christmas Church where he ministers to his people in Bethlehem, gives us a window not only into what it is like to have grown up under occupation but also into his soul. He demonstrates religious promises in the face of regularly hopeless days. Even when tanks are rolling on Nativity square and when he sees the lives of his friends, his family disrupted and destroyed, Mitri Raheb looks for seeds of hope. He brings the conflict up close and personal. His commitment to his people has kept him in Bethlehem, even as it has become the scene of occupation and oppression.

Born in Bethlehem, Mitri Raheb is a powerful voice for peace. Located near Manger Square in Bethlehem, the Evangelical Christmas Church deals with many challenges related to occupation. In April 2002, the church, Raheb’s home, and the International Center were hit by shelling from Israeli tanks and soldiers. Tanks damaged the church and destroyed the entrance to the parsonage. Raheb and his family were relegated to the upper floor of the house, fearing for their safety. Amid the dangers and challenges that confront his ministry in Bethlehem, Raheb works passionately for peace and reconciliation.

Raheb’s stories humanize the conflict. One gets to the real stories behind the headlines and soundbytes. In Bethlehem Besieged: Stories of Hope in Times of Trouble, Mitri Raheb offers a glimpse into his everyday life as a pastor, husband and father in Bethlehem. At a time when stereotypes rule mainstream media and Palestinians are associated with terrorism, Bethlehem Besieged offers a look at Palestinian life under occupation and puts a human face on a people often been demonized in the popular press. The retired South African Archbishop Desmond Tutu said of Raheb’s book: “This is a heartrending account of what has happened to ordinary people, and how they have lived and survived under the siege by Israeli soldiers of Bethlehem, the birthplace of the Prince of Peace. It should shake us out of complicity with the injustice being visited on ordinary people.”

Bethlehem Besieged begins with the invasion of Bethlehem in 2002 and continuing into today’s scene of occupation, the wall, and apartheid. It portrays the personal struggles of ordinary families in extreme circumstances. A diary gives a writer a space in which to record and share his personal thoughts, opinions, reflections, debates, and testimonies of historic events. It does not necessarily pass the abstract test of objectivity. Howard Zinn, activist, historian, writer and teacher, once said that objectivity is neither possible nor desirable. It is not possible because all journalism represents a selection from among an infinite number of facts. As soon as the journalist begins to select, he or she frames what he or she feels is most important. Thus, his or her reporting is already biased in the direction of whatever he or she, as the selector of this information, thinks people should know. Mitri says of his book, “Writing under siege overcomes the siege imposed on us, and publishing while the apartheid-like wall is being built enables me, in a sense, to transcend the wall.”

Internationally honored for his work, Raheb has been interviewed by CNN, the Washington Post, Fox News, ABC News, and CBS News, sharing his stories of the Israeli bombing of Bethlehem and the fears and hopes of ordinary people living there. Raheb’s stories are personal, sometimes emotional; mundane and exciting; literary and pedestrian. They enhance human rights, humane values, justice and equality. In doing so, he doesn’t distort or omit important issues and events. For readers, these stories are an alternative source, and a needed human context, about events in Palestine during a very volatile period.

  • Bethlehem Besieged: Stories of Hope in Times of Trouble, Mitri Raheb (Fortress Press, 2004), 157pp.

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