4: Inside a walled ghetto
Bethlehem means the house of bread, and here, the Gospel tells us, the Bread of Life was born. And here, daily bread is denied to many as a direct result of the policies of the state of Israel.
Bethlehem is a Palestinian city just a 15-minute drive from Jerusalem. Traditionally Bethlehem was a town with a strong Christian majority, but emigration has reduced their numbers to about 40% of the population. The tourism industry in the city is dominated by Christians. Alas, that industry has suffered immensely in recent years.
During the intifadah (or uprising) that broke out in 2000, Bethlehem became off-limits to many tourists not because it was inherently unsafe in Bethlehem, but because Israel’s government has banned entry to Israeli tour buses, guides and drivers (in fact, Israeli law forbids all its citizens access to the city). Happily our group, guided by a Franciscan priest on a Palestinian bus driven by an Arab driver, could travel unhindered into Bethlehem (though leaving, as we will see in a moment, was not quite as simple).
It is not only Bethlehem’s Christians that are suffering. Israel’s blockade of Bethlehem, through its so-called security wall and armed checkpoints, arbitrarily prevents residents from leaving their city. As a result, many who once had jobs in Jerusalem are now unemployed. One dreadful story involves a pregnant woman who required urgent medical attention that could not be provided in Bethlehem. The Israeli checkpoint guards denied her exit. The woman and her unborn baby died. As a direct response to the tragedy, a Swiss priest established a children’s hospital in Bethlehem.
It is no exaggeration to say that our group was shocked by the security wall, which is built deep into Palestinian territory. Throughout the West Bank, it cuts off farmers from their land, workers from their jobs, people from their families Its social effects are devastating. Grafitti on one part of the 10m high wall, which has cut off a once busy thoroughfare, pointedly compares the barrier to the wall the Nazis built to entrap the Jews in the Warsaw ghetto in 1943. A few metres away, a spraypainter simply demanded: Stop Apartheid. Nearby, somebody symbolically drew in stark black outline a plain living room in front of a window looking into an idyllic world. The effects of the wall are not only social, but also psychological.
Israel has, with some success, sold the wall as a security measure against the deplorable suicide bombers. But, if security was the true reason for the wall (and Israel has every right to take reasonable measures to protect itself), why was it not built along the recognised borders with the West Bank? The geography of the wall suggests at least two objectives: for one, Israel seeks to disempower and degrade Palestinians; for another, Israel sees the wall as its future border. Chances are that Israel will pull off one of the most brazen and unjust land grabs in modern history.
And with this in mind, our group proceeded to Shepherd Fields, where Catholics recall the angelic announcement of the Messiah’s birth to the shepherds. God’s choice of shepherds as the first recipients of the Good News is significant. Shepherds were on the lowest rung of the social ladder. As our tour guide, Fr Garret Edmunds OFM pointed out, God did not call on the mayor or the cream of the religious establishment, but on smelly, uncouth workers. Three decades later, God had women, who had no social or even legal standing at the time, announce the news of Jesus’ Resurrection. The message is clear: Christ’s Church includes even, and especially, the disempowered and the unkempt, the oppressed and the powerless. It is for this reason that the Catholic Church today engages itself on behalf of the Palestinians.
The basilica of the Nativity is at once a sign of Christian division and unity. It is co-owned by the Catholic, Greek Orthodox and Armenian churches. Until 1852 it was run solely by the Franciscans. Then, by an edict of the Ottoman caliph, these three churches took joint control of it and the church of the Holy Sepulchre in Jerusalem. The churches don’t always co-exist in harmony.
On the other hand, after the two-months siege of the basilica of the Nativity in 2002, when 450 young Palestinians evaded an arbitrary mass arrest of all men under 25 by the occupying Israelis, Christians from all denominations came from Nazareth and elsewhere to clean up and restore the church, rehabilitating in unity this holy shrine.
And so (after some powershopping at the excellent Herodion shop of Costas Canavati, a Palestinian descendant of the Crusaders) we made our way to leave Bethlehem but not without getting a faint taste of the problems the locals experience daily. As our bus reached the checkpoint, the guards demanded arbitrarily, and perhaps with some spite, that our group disembark and go through the checkpoint, presenting our passports as if crossing an international border (of course, if this really was an international border, then Israel would have no business in the West Bank anyhow). In a procession of farce dressed up as a security measure, we went through the unwelcoming checkpoint hall, passing through beeping metal detectors without being stopped, waving our passports at the pimply teenage guard who took absolutely no interest in checking them at all (instead cheerfully wishing us a nice day).
Needless to say, the resident of Bethlehem would not enjoy such an easy passage. The same guard, a boy just emerging from puberty, has the power to prevent them leaving Bethlehem. And many of these guards do, arbitrarily and without needing to justify their decision. And so the systematic humiliation of Palestinians is placed in the hands of people who know not what they are doing, on the orders of a people who should, from their own experience, know better than to allow this to happen.