This Christmas in Bethlehem

I was born within a short walking distance of where tradition says Jesus Christ was born.  The Biblical Shepherd's field (Beit Sahur in Arabic) where I was born and Beit Jala (where St. Nicholas was believed to have been born) are suburbs of Bethlehem in the Holy Land.  Unfortunately, the residents of those places like all Palestinians (Christian and Muslim) will not see "peace on earth" or "good will" but more blood and mayhem this Christmas and Ramadan season (Ramadan is the Muslim month of fasting and prayers). My mother's side of the family is Lutheran and my father's side is Greek Orthodox.  

My hometown was an idyllic place, a place were Christians and Muslims lived and worked side by side.  The main town mosque and church are still in the same block both in Bethlehem and Beit Sahur.  Bethlehem, Beit Jala, and Beit Sahur have been relentlessly bombed by Israeli occupation forces with hundreds of families having to desert their homes (about 70% of the damaged homes belonging to Christian families).  

Amnesty International, Human Rights Watch, and B'Tselem (Israeli Human Rights Organization) have called this "excessive use of force" and "collective punishment" (banned by International law).  

My parents tell me they feel lucky since the level of atrocities is still small compared to those faced by other places such as Ramallah, Gaza, Rafah, and  Husan.   A siege on all towns is also in effect and the United Nations has warned of potential starvation.  In some places (e.g. Hebron) curfews are in effect for weeks with no school, no work, and no supplies.

In these times of crisis and Christmas renewal, we reflect on the Palestine of Jesus' day and how things may have been. Like today, the picture in the Holy Land was less than idyllic 2000 years ago.  

The similarities are astonishing: a brutal military occupation supported both by resources extracted from the natives and by funding and weaponry from the west, rulers using collective punishment against the inhabitants, grinding poverty of the natives, wealthy overlords using self proclaimed divine authority to do what they please, soldiers killing children, selfish collaborators, parents grieving over the loss of their children, attacks on houses of worship, and an organized public relations campaign to justify it all..  

Of course some differences exist.  Gunship helicopters and tanks are used today to bomb neighborhoods (and even Churches and Mosques) and assassinate individuals in lieu of Roman crucifixion or feeding them to the lions..  And instead of public pronouncements by scribes, we have sophisticated media tools used to show that two undercover soldiers killed by a mob are more precious than one hundred Palestinian children massacred and thousands injured.  

Absurdly blaming the victims for their own killing, the current occupier has produced a new logic.  Instead of chariots, spears, and swords, the occupier has 400 nuclear weapons and a modern US-equipped army (for which my tax dollars are now supporting to kill my friends and relatives).

I also reflect on what Jesus recommended to his followers.  Better yet, he set the example for them when he went into the Temple grounds, turned the tables of the money-changers, and chastized those who have turned the house of the Lord to suit their own personal benefit.  Americans today know very little about what is happening to their co-religionists in the Holy Land other than the distorted snippets seen on TV.  Sure, the Catholic Bishops issued a statement denouncing the excessive use of force by the Israeli army as did the World Council of Churches.  They did this on the heels of similar reports from over six human rights organizations.  But are words enough while the killing and oppression continues?  Are words enough when our own US government basically supplies the weapons and the money for Israel to continue its policies?  

These are policies that in the past 52 years resulted in the largest refugee problem in the world (70% of Palestinians are displaced or refugees)? Policies that include land confiscation, home demolitions, and settlement construction.   The answer given by a small group of Christians working in the occupied territories is no.  

This group (called the Christian Peacemaker Teams, see of highly dedicated individuals sometimes put themselves in front of Israeli bulldozers to prevent the demolishing of Palestinian homes.  They have worked in many corners of the world to rectify injustice by non-violent means and mostly by putting their bodies between the oppressor and the oppressed. This Christmas, the group will still be in Beit Jala and in Hebron.  

Hebron, where Abraham is believed buried, has seen horrific suffering where 400 fanatical Jewish colonizers/settlers supported by 2000 Israeli soldiers basically rule the lives of tens of thousands of Palestinians. If the clock would turn back 2000 years, I really believe that Jesus would be walking and acting in the wretched streets of downtown Hebron under curfew, with the besieged people of the Shepherd's field, and in the basements of my/his home town.

(Dr. Mazin B. Qumsiyeh is Chair of the Media Committee, The Palestine Right to Return Coalition)


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