This week, people around the world will sing “O little town of Bethlehem” and say “peace on earth, goodwill to all people.” However, in the land where Jesus was born, there is no peace and people suffer daily violence. Imagine if today, Joseph and Mary needed to travel from Nazareth to Bethlehem. Would they manage to arrive in time for their son’s birth? Would they be allowed to pass through various checkpoints and roadblocks?
Joseph and Mary would have to travel through Jenin, Nablus, Ramallah and then further south through Jerusalem to finally reach Bethlehem. It’s doubtful whether they would reach Bethlehem. All entry and exit points to the West Bank and Gaza - even mountainous paths and dirt roads - have been closed. Israel’s siege takes the form of over 150 military blockades erected in the West Bank.
Roads have also been blocked by 100-meter long ditches and trenches, concrete barriers on main and side roads that make it impossible for Palestinians to leave their villages and for medical aid to arrive. When Palestinians attempt to leave on foot, they are shot at if spotted by Israeli army patrols. Ambulances and medical services are prevented from reaching thousands of homes and families. Hundreds of towns are completely isolated and suffer from serious shortages of food and medical supplies, as well as basic services.
Israeli, Palestinian and international human rights groups have reported various cases in which Israeli soldiers have shot and killed Palestinians without provocation at roadblocks. The blockades have not provided security for Israel, but instead work to radicalise moderate Palestinians whose still believe in peace.
Would Mary, a pregnant woman, be allowed to pass through these checkpoints? One month ago, Fatima Nasser Abed Rabbo gave birth at an Israeli military checkpoint in al Walaja village, near Bethlehem. Fatima and her husband, Nasser, were trying to reach the hospital in Bethlehem. Soldiers at military checkpoints twice refused to allow them to pass, saying that Fatima’s condition was not critical. After trying for about one hour to pass the checkpoints, Fatima gave birth to her son, Walid, in their car.
Fatima was only seven months pregnant. As a premature baby, Walid required urgent medical treatment. The family reached the hospital in Bethlehem one and a half hours after he was born. Walid weighed 1,417 grams, and his temperature was extremely low on arrival. He died that afternoon. It is likely he would have lived had he received immediate care. Other women have suffered the same fate in the last few months because of Israel’s policy of closure and repeated refusal by soldiers manning the checkpoints to allow passage to people obviously seeking medical treatment.
If Joseph and Mary were able to ultimately reach Bethlehem, the irony is that they most probably would not have a hard time finding somewhere to stay. In the past few years, Palestinians have spent millions of dollars on upgrading tourism. However, most hotels are empty, closed, shelled or burnt. There are no tourists, the Nativity Church, built on the spot where Jesus was born, is empty.
This is the daily reality of 34 years of occupation. The price paid for resistance to occupation is high. This also applies to the economic, social and humanitarian arenas. Of course there should be an immediate end to the violence. This includes the inherent violence stemming from military occupation. Governments that have called for an end to violence must also call for an end to the occupation and support international protection for Palestinian civilians.
While the world sings “peace on earth”, Palestinians living in Bethlehem might be able to catch a glimpse of a star shining in the sky above their hometown. However, it is more likely that they will catch sight of an Israeli combat helicopter. This is Bethlehem, anno 2001.
Arjan El Fassed is one of the four founders of The Electronic Intifada, and works for the Palestinian human rights organisation LAW in the Westbank. Annet Meeuws is researcher at the Jerusalem Center for Social and Economic Rights. Both live and work in Jerusalem. This article was earlier published in the Philadelphia Inquirer, El Pais, Berliner Morgenpost, the Jordan Times and Ha’aretz.