These are the first verses of the Christmas song, “O Little Town of Bethlehem.” More than 2,000 years ago, a baby was born in the town of Bethlehem. His name was Jesus and He came to earth to bring hope. According to Christian teachings, Jesus believed in spreading goodwill toward all men. But the current residents of Bethlehem know anything but. In fact, the town’s residents who consist of Palestinian Muslims and Palestinian Christians — often referred to as the “living stones” of Christianity — are mainly familiar with fear.
Christmas has taken on special meaning during these trying times. In fact, Bethlehem’s residents are waiting specifically for this holiday season in the hopes that increased world attention to this area would result in a marked improvement of their lives. Bethlehem, a once bustling city of noise, movement and color is a ghost town, with damaged buildings. Silence is broken only by the rumbling of Israeli tanks and the sporadic gunfire of soldiers. It is a city imprisoned behind a wall. Currently, Israelis have enforced a curfew on the residents which allows people to leave their homes for a few hours; travelling outside the city is prohibited; beatings of residents by Israeli soldiers are a regular occurrence; the youth cannot go to school and adults have no jobs to go to.
Recently, my friend, whose parents reside in the war-torn Bethlehem suburb of Beit Jala, described a desperate, young father. He approached my friend’s father.
“Sir, can you give me a job for 30 shekels [the equivalent of 10 US dollars]?” asked the young father. “My children have no food to eat, and I have no money.”
“I’m sorry. I wish I could, my son, but I need a job myself,” was the response.
This sad scenario is a familiar one that plays out whenever the curfew is lifted, but United Nations figures show that most Palestinians are now living on less than $2 per day. So even loosening a curfew means little to the purchasing power of parents in Bethlehem and other Palestinian cities/towns.
Even the famous Bethlehem holy site hasn’t escaped the wrath of the Palestinian-Israeli conflict. Who can forget the siege of the Church of the Nativity in Bethlehem earlier this year? The tense drama pitted a well-equipped Israeli army against trapped Palestinian fighters. Caught in the middle, as the bullets flew and psychological warfare raged on were members of the clergy and dozens of innocent Palestinian civilians. Prior to the siege, a Palestinian choirboy was shot dead by IDF soldiers outside Manger Square.
Whether the Christmas season will renew hopes for a better tomorrow is difficult to say. For the second year in a row, the Israeli government has declared Bethlehem as being off-limits to Christian tourists during Christmas. Israelis say that the violence has forced them into cancelling Christmas. They say their presence is needed in Bethlehem and other cities in the Occupied Territories. But the Israeli Occupation is in its 35th year. Twenty-seven of the 35 years were marked with no violent uprisings for freedom, but rather general strikes and leafleting. So why didn’t the Israelis leave during the 27 years of “quiet?” Even Ehud Barak’s “generous” Camp David plan allowed for illegal settlers to remain in 80% of the current settlements.
A new poll, conducted among Arab-Americans and Jewish-Americans, may provide a glimmer of hope for two-state solution advocates, however. According to a joint Arab American Institute/Americans for Peace Now survey, there is strong backing in both communities for secure and independent states for Israelis and Palestinians alike.
Perhaps someday, there will even be overwhelming support for a democratic bi-national state where Palestinians and Israelis live as equals in one state. Psalm 133 begins, “How very good and pleasant it is when kindred live together in unity!” The psalm ends, “For there the Lord ordained his blessing, life forevermore.”
But peace and freedom are foremost on the minds of Palestinians in Bethlehem and beyond. The words of Christ, “Blessed are the peacemakers, for they shall be called the children of God,” particularly resonate with Bethlehem’s residents these days.
Peace, Christmas, and Bethlehem. Now that has a nice ring to it.
Sherri Muzher, who holds a Jurist Doctor in International and Comparative Law, is a Palestinian-American activist and free lance journalist.