Oh Bethlehem! What Have They Done to You?
Oh Bethlehem! What Have They Done to You?
By Maria C. Khoury
Celebrating another Holy Season to rejoice in the birth of Christ and one wonders how to enter and venerate the birthplace in the big prison that the Israeli government created stealing more Palestinian land and putting it on the Israeli side of the 26 foot high concrete wall that has been completed all around Bethlehem with a tall iron gate to close and open as the Israeli army wishes.
What did it feel like entering Bethlehem this year after having been spoiled with freedom of movement in the United States while on a fall book tour promoting a stronger voice for our Christian community in the Holy Land? I was stunned at the awful conditions and the terrible wall that is truly a crime against people and morality. I was amazed at how many more soldiers were at the entrance of Bethlehem than ever before and it reminded me of entering a restricted military area in the Gaza Strip with a variety of Israeli checkpoints and heavy duty iron gates. How will the pilgrims come to Bethlehem this year? And how in the world will the Christmas Market scheduled for 20-27 December aimed at reviving Star Street which has over 80 shops closed for more than five years get the pedestrians it needs to boost their economy.
Christiane Nasser from the Centre for Cultural Heritage Preservation in Bethlehem, in charge of the Christmas Market Festival, said that the shop owners had no spirit left to run their businesses because 50 out of the 80 shops still remained closed even after major community efforts were made to get into the Christmas spirit by decorating and open the shops in celebration of Chris’s birth. She said: “We need lots of creativity to have a successful market.” For a moment I thought to myself, these Israelis have stolen everything from the Palestinians including more land for further illegal settlement activity all around Beit Jala and Bethlehem, let them not steal the only thing that we have left which is our willpower to be free.
Ms. Nasser was convinced that the apartheid wall all around Bethlehem is part of the effort to break the spirit and dignity of the Palestinian people. I had to agree because for many years I always felt I was in a psychological prison as I moved around Palestine with hundreds of checkpoints but now truly it is so evident that it is a physical prison with the International Court in the Hague declaring the wall illegal but the world ignores what Israel is doing to Christ’s birthplace and now more than ever our Christian population continues to drop in numbers from these harsh policies, collapsed economy and overall oppression.
I was shocked and appalled entering Bethlehem since the visitors to Christ’s birthplace will be at the mercy of the Israeli army more than ever before. What was a greater surprise, on the way out, my brother-in-law, Nadim Khoury, a reputable businessman with an American passport and a proper and legal permit to travel inside Israel was refused entry into Jerusalem. The soldier simply said: “Israel is closed today.” Well, that was a new line for me continuing the harassment and humiliation that I have always known at these dreadful checkpoints.
These military barriers are meant to squeezes us psychologically to the point of taking the only thing left in each and every Palestinian now on the ground, the willpower and spirit to want to live in freedom. And these awful and unbearable conditions are causing more people to join the extreme fundamental groups. Thus, as Christian people, we have to struggle further to promote non violent resolutions to ending the occupation.
To further depress me that day after visiting Cremisan Wines, the only Palestinian winery in Beit Jala, operated by monks, many of whom had to relocate to Jerusalem since they no longer had access into Bethlehem because they were put on the other side of the wall which technically means that the Palestinian Winery is no longer Palestinian since it is not inside Bethlehem, another great steal of over 50 dunums of land (one dunum equals about 9,000 square feet). Furthermore, 100 Palestinian preschool children will no longer be able to attend their preschool operated by the nuns because it too went on the Israeli side. What sad and depressing news from Bethlehem, the psychological mood of the people, the physical atmosphere and the terrible occupation policies at work 100% of the time.
May the little light in Bethlehem that was shinning over two thousand years ago to announce the birth of our Savior, may it somehow, someway continue to shine as the true light in the world from this sacred spot where the Prince of Peace is waiting for us to practice His love and His peace as we try to witness for Christ in this very troubled land where Christians, Muslims and Jews will struggle for eternity. May the newborn King of Glory bring inner peace to your soul as we reflect on the deteriorating conditions of the birthplace of the Lord.
"Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace, good will toward men." (Luke 2:14) Christ is Born! Glorify Him!
Note: Sincere thanks and appreciation to all the parishes and faithful who hosted me while in the United States and the great support for Christina Books and our community in Taybeh. Thank you!