O little town of Bethlehem, how still we see thee lie!
Above thy deep and dreamless sleep the silent stars go by.
Yet in thy dark streets shineth the everlasting Light;
The hopes and fears of all the years are met in thee tonight.
They are the words to one of the most popular Christmas songs, and yet I wonder how many are aware that this magnificent city is dying?
Growing up in a Palestinian Christian home, the cities in the Bible came alive through my parents’ stories of visits to nearby Bethlehem and Jerusalem . The family photographs allowed us to put an image with the stories. Bethlehem was obviously distinguishable for being the place of birth for the Prince of Peace, as well as for the unforgettable 14-point star on the marble ground that marks the site of His birth.
Before the 1967 War and subsequent Israeli Occupation, the drive from the Ramallah district to Bethlehem was about 40 minutes. Today with the Israeli Wall and the checkpoints, that same trip could take as long as four hours.
In former President Jimmy Carter’s new book, “Palestine: Peace, not Apartheid,” he quotes Father Claudio Ghilardi discussing the enclosure of Bethlehem with the Wall and the obstacle to attending churches for prayer, “For 900 years, we have lived here under Turkish, British, Jordanian, and Israeli governments, and no one has ever stopped people coming to pray. It is scandalous.”
He disregarded Israeli arguments that the Wall was about keeping Palestinian suicide bombers out of Israel . “The Wall is not separating Palestinians from Jews; rather, Palestinians from Palestinians.”
How painful has the plight of Bethlehem residents become?
Months ago when I spoke to the Palestinian ambassador to the US , Afif Safieh, he made a specific mention of the Bethlehem area — the last area of Palestine where there is a significant Christian presence.
Bethlehem “lives in a horrible, horrendous, and demented situation where it is besieged by the Wall of Shame (the Apartheid Wall) that has totally strangled the city, suffocated its economy, and impeded the free movement of the society,” Safieh said.
He went on to describe the policy of ‘de-development’, a term coined by Harvard scholar Sarah Roy, the daughter of Holocaust survivors. She has characterized the Israeli policy of doom against the Palestinian society and economy as deliberate de-development –” attracting international media attention, though not here.
Interestingly, Bethlehem became news in Congress this past summer . . . for the wrong reasons. Congressmen Michael McCaul (R-TX) and Joseph Crowley (D-NY) wanted to introduce a bill about the “persecution” of Palestinian Christians by the Palestinian Authority, without input from Palestinian Christians.
Each clause attempted to exploit their colleagues’ belief that the Palestinian v. Israeli conflict was a religious conflict between Muslims and Jews.
One particular clause got Leila Sansour’s attention –” she’s the Chief Executive of Open Bethlehem:
CLAUSE: Whereas in 1994 Bethlehem was the most populous Christian town in Israel and the entire region;
Sansour wrote to Congressman McCaul, “Between the years 2000 and 2004, 357 Christian families (10% of the Christian population) emigrated from Bethlehem alone. Indeed, this massive emigration threatens the existence of the indigenous Christian community, which has been safeguarding sacred Christian traditions since the time of Jesus. This flight is primarily a result of the fear generated by repeated Israeli military incursions, and has been exacerbated by the economic devastation of Bethlehem due to the Israeli closure imposed on the city.”
The bill was killed before introduction with the organized efforts of Palestinian Christians, like Sansour.
The shame is that many in the Christian Right, firmly entrenched in our political system, believe that unconditional support of Israel will hasten Christ’s Second Coming. Never mind that Palestinians and Israelis are apparently supposed to continue dying to realize this prophecy.
On the upside, most Americans are insisting that the Palestinian-Israeli conflict be resolved. According to a UPI-Zogby International poll conducted on 6,296 Americans between Dec. 4 and Dec. 6, 59.2% answered that it’s very important to resolve the Israeli-Palestinian dispute.
It will be another sad Christmas in Bethlehem and the rest of Palestine As I sing, ‘O Little Town of Bethlehem,” I will also think of Jesus’ famous words, “Blessed are the peacemakers, for they shall be called the children of God."