O little town of Bethlehem
How still we see thee lie
Amidst thy deep and dreamless sleep
The silent stars go by
American Episcopalian Rector Phillips Brooks wrote the words to this well known Christmas carol in 1868 following a pilgrimmage to the Holy Land. He was apparently inspired by the night view of Bethlehem from the surrounding Palestinian hillside (then with an approximate population of somewhere between 300 and 1000). As Christians sing this carol year after year as part of our Christmas celebrations, we imagine a tranquil, peaceful scene, complete with a manger, a cow, a few sheep, some shepherds, and the Holy family. We picture a clear quiet night, with stars overhead. Sadly, if we cling to this image as an accurate portrayal of modern day Bethlehem, we are allowing ourselves to be severely misled.
Bethlehem today is a city of approximately 28,000 people, 1/3 of whom are Palestinian Christians. It is home to the largest concentration of Christians in Palestine, a demographic group who now consist of less than 2% of the population of the entire West Bank. Christian numbers in the Holy Land are shrinking quickly. The oppression of the Israeli occupation is forcing them out.
The surrounding hillsides which so inspired Brooks, are now home to over 100,000 Israeli settlers, living in 19 settlements and outposts. As they grow, they spread down the hillsides, taking more and more land from the local Palestinians.
Bethlehem is also home to 3 refugee camps that house 20,000 refugees and their descendants – people who lost their land, homes and belongings as a result of the formation of the State of Israel in 1948 and came to the camps as refugees. Conditions in the camps are grim. One of the camps, Aida Refugee Camp, is located on the north side of Bethlehem, adjacent to the 25 foot high Separation Barrier concrete wall that encircles Bethelehem on 3 sides and separates Bethlehem from Jerusalem. It is a well known place of violence, as the Israeli forces make frequent incursions into the Camp. Soldiers are known to use live ammunition, rubber bullets, tear gas, sound bombs, and skunk water against the camp’s residents, and Palestinian youth throw stones at the soldiers.
The situation at Aida camp became even more dire a few weeks ago. Multiple news outlets, including Al Jazeera English news (see http://www.aljazeera.com/news/…/israeli-forces-gas-die-151031140951304.html) reported on a horrifying incident that occurred one Thursday night when the army were firing tear gas into the camp in response to a protest. As an Israeli jeep drove slowly down one of the streets in the camp, an Israeli border officer speaking in Arabic is reported to have issued a chilling threat over a loudspeaker – a threat that was claimed to have been captured on video and included the following words:
“People of Aida refugee camp, we are the occupation forces. You throw stones, and we will hit you with gas until you all die. The children, the youth, the old people – you will all die. We won’t leave any of you alive,” the unidentified officer is quoted as saying.
According to the Al Jazeera report, the video continued with more words in a similar vein.
Unfortunately, the violence in the Bethlehem area is not restricted only to the Aida Camp. It happens in many places in the city and surrounding area. Israeli newspaper Haaretz (www.haaretz.com) reported that the following day, an 8 month old baby died in his home in the village of Beit Fajjar, south of Bethlehem. Reports could not confirm whether the tear gas drifted into the home, or if it was shot directly into the home. Since then, there have been multiple other reports of violence throughout the Bethlehem area.
As I walked down the streets of Bethlehem earlier this month, I ran into a friend. As we talked, I asked him how things were. “Very very terrible” was his response. He spoke about the increased violence and the situation at Aida Camp. He spoke about how the tear gas drifts over much of the city, affecting residents far from the scene of the violence. As we talked, the offensive smell of skunk water (which smells nothing like a skunk, but instead carries an overwhelmingly foul sewage odour) lingered in the air, apparently sprayed by the army on the streets, homes and businesses of Bethlehem that are located in close proximity to the camp.
Christians from around the world make pilgrimmages to Bethlehem, seeking to see and experience the birthplace of Jesus. This, in concert with the oppression of the economy as a result of the illegal Israeli occupation, means tourism is a major portion of Bethlehem’s economy. The fall months are often popular with tourists, as the heat of the summer is past. Last year, tourism dropped dramatically due to the Gaza war. This year, the increased violence throughout the Bethlehem area, Jerusalem, and the entire West Bank, is negatively affecting tourism. These days, my friend reported that the big tour buses come in from Jerusalem, go to the Church of the Nativity and the Shepherd’s Fields, perhaps stop at one or two of the major tourist shops, and then immediately head out of town. Smaller tourist shops, restaurants and hotels are all suffering as a result. It is a severe blow to the economy of the entire area.
My friend went on to tell me about the effects of the occupation and the violence associated with it, on both himself and his family. I asked if I could take his picture and tell his personal story of life under occupation. He declined, fearful of reprisals and arrest from the Israeli forces.
This is the reality of life in Bethlehem today.
Even in the most dire of circumstances, it is important to find hope. Hope for a better day. Hope for an end to the violence. Hope for an end to the brutal occupation. Hope for peace.
The Christian season of Advent is fast approaching. This year, I invite you to open your hearts to the people of today’s Bethlehem, through the use of an advent resource entitled the Kairos Palestine Christmas Alert 2015. Found at http://www.kairospalestine.ps, it contains reflections written by Bethlehem Christians for each of the 4 Sundays of Advent.
Peace, Salaam, Shalom,