Washington Report on Middle East Affairs, January/February 2006, pages 16-19

Special Report

Bethlehem Voices: Hopes and Fears

By Michael Keating and Delinda Hanley

All Photos by M. Keating

Majdi Al Shayeb inlays mother-of-pearl in a crucifix at his family business in Beit Sahour (All photos by M. Keating).

AFTER Christians around the world sing “Oh Little Town of Bethlehem” and sit in crowded church pews to hear about the wondrous birth of Christ 2005 years ago, they should also talk about Jesus’ relatives living in Bethlehem today—and then plan a trip to meet them tomorrow. These days only a few pilgrims brave Israeli checkpoints to visit Jesus’ birthplace. Without tourists, Bethlehemites are hungry, exhausted and losing hope.

Just in time for Christmas, Israel is completing a 25- to 30-foot-high annexation wall which cuts off Bethlehem from other Palestinian towns, including Jerusalem, and its lifeblood, tourists. Israel has built this wall on Palestinian territory, bulldozing homes, olive groves and shops in its path. The wall now separates Palestinians from their water resources, orchards and neighbors.

In the 30-minute drive from Jerusalem to Bethlehem we passed that abominable wall, with graffiti shouting “American Money, Israeli Apartheid” and “Thou Shalt Not Steal.” Our driver, Fares, whose permit allows him to drive on roads built for Jews and visitors only, slowed down and pointed out ruined olive groves and farms along the wall’s route.

At every church and every monastery we passed, the young man, who has lived his entire life in Bethlehem, crossed himself repeatedly. His faith is bone-deep; its expression is automatic and immediate.

Not far from the Church of the Nativity, Bethlehem’s Milk Grotto is sacred to Christian and Muslim women alike.

Nonetheless, he exuded little optimism about the future. “They do what they want,” he said. “We can only wait.”

Our first stop, Beit Sahour, the site of Shepherds’ Field, where the angelic host announced the birth of Jesus, was only a few blocks down the hill from Bethlehem. “That is our future,” Beit Sahour Mayor Hani El-Hayek told us, pointing out his office window at a ring of Israeli settlements.

It’s impossible to miss Har Homa, the Israeli settlement built on what once was the green mountain Abu Ghnaim, historically owned by Palestinians from Bethlehem and Beit Sahour. Less than a mile and a half away, and visible to its prior owners from every window or rooftop, Har Homaseparates both Bethlehem and Beit Sahour from Jerusalem. On June 6, 1991, Israeli authorities expropriated the land from its Palestinian owners for “public use.” The U.N. condemned Israel’s plans for Har Homa in 1997, but within days bulldozers began clearing the forests, and building a settlement for Jews only. In 2004 President George W. Bush guaranteed the future of Har Homa and other illegal West Bank settlements by noting “changed realities on the ground.”

Neither Palestinians nor Arab Israelis are allowed to live in Har Homa’s subsidized housing, shop in its supermarkets, or play in its playgrounds. They can’t even drive past it to get to Jerusalem. And their own towns cannot expand because they then would be too close to land reserved for Jews.

“Israel’s been planning this for a long time,” the mayor said. “These settlements are limiting our ability to develop our own future.”

Israeli settlements surround Beit Sahour and Bethlehem. Har Homa (background) was built on a forested hilltop expropriated from Palestinians.

“They take what they want,” echoed businessman and Beit Sahour City Councilman Elias Rishmawi. “They don’t consult with us.”

Mayor El-Hayek added: “There are certain minimal things that are necessary for the viability of a community. Those elements are being taken away from us.” In fact, he noted, the Israelis intentionally are “limiting our possibilities to develop.” Caught in a quagmire of Israeli law and military occupation, businesses crumble and families disintegrate.

Deeds of title, though they be centuries’ old, are invalidated by Israeli courts on the slightest pretext. For example, if a new Israeli survey of a property varies even slightly from the historic survey, the deed is thrown out, the property seized by the state, and the tenants evicted. Should all the treacheries of the law prove inadequate, there’s still the military. “If the courts don’t work, they’ll confiscate the property by military order,” said Rishmawi. “Then the land is turned over to the settlements.”

Caught in the tightening noose of Israel’s occupation, their land and children threatened by both Israeli soldiers and settlers, their finances ruined, many Palestinians, especially Christians with relatives abroad, give up and leave.

“In 1948, Christians made up 24 percent of this area, and in 1967, we were 18 percent. Today we are 2 percent,” the mayor said. “Israel wants only the old people to stay.”

“Their plan is to have the Palestinian people just disappear,” warned Rishmawi. “Not only the Christians but the Muslims, too.”

HCEF employs Christian workers to refurbish homes in the old city of Bethlehem.

Like so many Palestinian Christians, Beit Sahour’s officials are shocked by the American government’s single-minded concern for the safety of Israeli Jews and its insensitivity to the needs of the Christian population. “Christianity is about love and justice,” said the councilman. “There is little concern with love or justice in America’s involvement here. It’s a sort of cowboy Christianity.”

“Let’s not fool ourselves,” Rishmawi said. “Israel will never give up this area without pressure from abroad. They gave up Gaza in order to keep this land.”

In 2000 the average number of tourists visiting Bethlehem was 91,276. In 2004 only 7,249 tourists came, and they didn’t stay very long, the mayor told us. “Tourists are always safe in thePalestinian community,” the mayor said, but heeding dire warnings from the U.S. State Department, Israeli tour operators, and the U.S. media, most Americans shun the Holy Land. This is causing an economic and diplomatic disaster in a region that has long enjoyed the dollars and friendships of American tourists and pilgrims.

“Tour groups drive up in a bus and spend five minutes in the Church of the Nativity [the birthplace of Jesus]. That’s it. They don’t come into the market anymore,” Bethlehem shopkeeper John Afram complained. “Israeli tour companies don’t want tourists to speak with local people. It’s political,” he said. “Tell Americans they can be free in the Holy Land. As free as in your country. Don’t be sheep and follow your guide. Ask him for 30 minutes to see the city where Christ was born and meet real Palestinians.”

Before the second intifada, business was good, according to Afram. “Today our life is upside down.”

Abu Yousef, a mother-of-pearl artisan who works above a souvenir shop off Manger’s Square.

He took us to the back of his souvenir shop, where he’d planned to open a coffee shop. There he brewed us some strong sweet mint tea on a butane stove, apologizing for the darkness. He couldn’t pay his electrical bill. He has epilepsy but can’t afford to buy his medicine. “Our life has changed 180 degrees,” he told us.

Afram fondly recalled a trip to California, but said there is no place like home. “I’ve lived my whole life in Bethlehem,” he explained. “I can go to America, but I can’t go to Jerusalem. Can you believe it? We’re like sheep in a pen.”

We spent some time in a quiet workroom off Manger Square watching Abu Yousef’s dusty care-worn hands at work. He has spent the past 50 years making fine art, exquisite crucifixes and jewelry from mother-of-pearl. The work is hard on his eyes and his knees, he said, but, “I can’t retire.” Young people don’t want to learn his craft—his own son, Yousef, studied food chemistry in Germany. When he returned to Bethlehem, however, he couldn’t find a job. Since 2000, and the destruction of their tourism industry, 10 percent of Bethlehem’s Christians have emigrated. If Yousef had to leave it would break his father’s heart.

On our next visit we took a shared taxi from Ramallah to Bethlehem, driving with Palestinians clutching travel permits, bumping along a winding circuitous route that creeps through the backs of villages and over awesomely steep hills with treacherous hairpin turns—all because the highways are off-limits to most Palestinians. It took us nearly three hours to reach Israel’s checkpoint outside Bethlehem. Teenaged Israeli soldiers took their time to process our travel documents as they ate their lunch, sipped their drinks, and had a smoke. Our fellow passengers, fasting for Ramadan, waited patiently.

Noting empty hotels, quiet restaurants and bored shopkeepers dying to talk on every corner in Bethlehem, we decided to stay a while.After settling into Hotel Casa Nova (a lovely Franciscan hostel that was damaged but refurbished after Israel’s 2002 siege of the Church of the Nativity next door) we wandered around Bethlehem.

We visited a small mother-of-pearlworkshop that specializes in creating crucifixes. The workspace spreads from the workshop to the kitchen and bedrooms of the home shared by two industrious brothers, Majdi Al Shayeb and Jalal Abu Farah, and their wives and children.

Six brothers used to live in this home; the rest have emigrated, Jalal said, as we thumbed through their worn but cherished photo album. They used to own a prosperous grocery store near Rachel’s Tomb. One night Israeli soldiers broke the locks and took everything.

“We are struggling every day for a living,” the men tell us.

Signs of Hope

The HCEF has helped build a new bedroom and entryway for this family in Bethlehem.

Some noteworthy American organizations are working to help Palestinians survive. The Holy Land Christian Ecumenical Foundation, based in Bethesda, Maryland, sponsors emergency medical and food services and ongoing educational and housing projects to encourage Christians to stay.

One HCEF project does double duty: It helps people fix up their homes in the ancient streets of Bethlehem and Beit Sahour and it fights unemployment by hiring Christians to do the work. HCEF’s enthusiastic staffmember, Amani Juha, and a visionary engineer, Khalil Hanania—both bright young educated Bethlehemites—took us to see some of their home rehabilitation projects.

At an average cost of $3,000, Hanania and his men install modern kitchens, bathrooms, floors and walls. We saw a storeroom transformed into a bedroom for a little boy who hated sharing a room with his sisters in a crowded multigenerational home. “Now I’m not ashamed to invite my friends to visit,” a child tells us. For another family, HCEF transformed a “black-painted cave” into a kitchen. There are 400 applications in the queue, Juha says.

A graduate of Birzeit University, with a degree in engineering, Hanania refuses to succumb to pessimism. “We belong here,” he says.

Juha is also a recent graduate, in her case with a degree in tourism and hotel management from Bethlehem University. “This is a special place,” said Juha, the sweep of her hand taking in Bethlehem. “I want to stay.”

Bethlehem has become a closed society, Juha and Hanania agree. The Israelis allow few Palestinians either out or in. So, even more than in the past, people have had to turn to families and church groups for support and companionship. Connections with the outside world are limited. “I have to get a ”˜visa’ to go to Jerusalem, although it’s only minutes away,” said Hanania. “And the permit is for a specific day and a specific time period. And they may not even honor it. We live in a guarded camp.”

As a student, Hanania endured enormous difficulties just trying to get back and forth between his family in Bethlehem and the university outside Ramallah. Although he lived on campus, he often went home. It was not easy, however, for a young Palestinian student to spend a weekend at home. The main road between Ramallah and Bethlehem was always closed to him simply because he is Palestinian. If he was lucky he was allowed to pass through the checkpoints.

Often he would simply leave the road and cross the mountains between school and home on foot at night. A dangerous choice: Israeli soldiers often shot at him. But, then, he also was shot at by soldiers on campus. Military closure at the university often lasted 20 to 30 days. During that time, students were confined to their rooms and forbidden even to look out their windows. Two friends, after two weeks, got bored and looked out their dormitory window. Those were fatal mistakes: both times, Hanania said, those friends were murdered by Israeli sharpshooters.

Signs of Desperation

Three sides of this Christian family’s home face Israel’s annexation wall.

We parked near the burial place of Jacob’s wife, Rachel’s Tomb, now wrapped in razor wire and disfigured by a military observation tower. The tomb is located on what used to be a prosperous Bethlehem street that was the main artery to Jerusalem and Hebron. A young Christian woman greets us at her front door, diagonally across from Rachel’s Tomb. A backhoe is scooping out a trench inches from her three-storied building and destroying her front yard.

Our distressed hostess, who begs us not to publish her name, takes us to the top floor of her family’s ample apartment. The first floor was the family’s prosperous business. That shop is now closed. The annexation wall rises higher than her home and will soon surround it on three sides. Every window will face blank cement. You’ll see the towering wall from every window. You won’t see the sun.

The woman talked fast: “My building is going to be alone, surrounded by walls, a tomb without a roof.” She feels utterly trapped in her home and sees little reason to hope for the future. “No one cares about us. They just want us to leave. Where can we go? We just stay at home as if we are in a prison.”

The family is financially ruined. Their home and their business downstairs are now worthless. “We were rich and helped others. We have dignity. We can’t beg. Ten years from now there will be no Christians here.” She urged us not to point or stand near the window, just in case someone was watching.

When we asked the eldest son what he’d do if he had one wish, he said: “I wish I could just go on a holiday.” But for this little boy, going to Disneyland is just as hard as going to Jerusalem.

For more information about the Holy Land Christian Ecumenical Foundation see its Web site: <http://www.hcef.org/hcef/> or call (301) 951-9400. To join an HCEF Living Stones Pilgrimage contact Gail Freeman ext. 206.

Michael Keating, a photographer and managing editor of The VVA Veteran, and Delinda Hanley, news editor of the Washington Report, visited the West Bank from Sept. 27 to Oct. 7.