It is mid-morning on Christmas Eve, and as I ponder the birth of Jesus, the Prince of Peace, I am wondering why Bethlehem? When will Bethlehem be the place of peace?
This little village in the hills just south of Jerusalem has never seen long periods of peace. Most of its history has been a land under occupation. The Romans as we know were present at the time of Jesus' birth, childhood, ministry, and his death. Followed then by the Byzantines, Crusaders, Ottoman Turks, the British Empire, and now by Israel. Technically Bethlehem is run by Palestinians. This city has a Christian mayor, (for the first time a woman has been elected) and the Palestinian Authority has control of the civil society. However, the city is also surrounded by a "separation wall" or "security wall."
I prefer the use of "separation wall" because this 30 foot concrete barrier effectively separates one segment of society from another. Often the wall has been built to separate one Palestinian neighborhood from another. Before the wall a mother in one neighborhood could walk across the road to visit her daughter and vice versa. Now one must get a permit to cross to see the other. A piece of paper with a stamp on it and a 30 foot wall stand between them. The Israelis are firm in their belief that the wall is for security--that before it terrorists with bombs were free to enter Israel and kill innocent people. However, in reality, if I really wanted to take a bomb into Jerusalem all I need do is place it in a public Palestinian bus in Bethlehem, ride it through Beit Jala and through a checkpoint where soldiers will enter the bus and look through the people and select one or two to check their ID. When satisfied that no one on the bus looks dangerous, the bus then proceeds into Jerusalem. Or I would take it in my car through the Q'alandia Checkpoint in the North-West part of Jerusalem. There it used to take a fair amount of time to get through the auto checkpoint. As the settlers in Maali Adumim (an illegal Israeli colony in the West Bank) found their direct road into Jerusalem that does not have a checkpoint becoming very crowded with cars not from their settlement, they complained to the military that they needed cars to move more smoothly through the checkpoint so they could return to getting to work on time on their own road. The military stopped checking vehicles and instead just make a cursory peek into the vehicles as they go by at 20 MPH. So, you cannot convince me that security is first on the minds of the Israelis.
With each passing day life becomes more difficult for the Palestinian. Instead of a 5 minute drive to school, some now travel over 40 minutes because their roads have been closed to Israeli only traffic. And this happens in Bethlehem, in the West Bank, in an area that is known by the rest of the world to have its own sovereignty. This sovereignty is not real, but an illusion to placate the rest of the world into believing that these people live normal lives, have self-determination and are choosing to be isolated and controlled. Many Israeli citizens believe that if we give Palestinians open access to Israel they will send suicide bombers and terrorists.
Let's get real. The Palestinians are not armed except with home-made rockets in Gaza and rocks. Every Israeli is conscripted into the Army--men and women--and serve side by side; men for 3 years, women for 2 years. From an early age they are taught to think in military terms. Weapons are carried overtly by many Israelis, especially those who have settled into colonies (otherwise known as settlements) that are located inside the Internationally proclaimed borders of the West Bank. Playgrounds are full of military symbols--tanks, jeeps, fighter planes, helicopters, so that from an early age children grow accustomed to their presence. A recent book by Nurit Peled documents what students from grade 10 through graduation learn of Palestinians. Mostly these neighbors are portrayed as non-entities, having not added to society at large, and as Arabs are viewed as less than us. The photos used in the texts are less subtle than the writing, and show Arabs in menial jobs, faceless, nameless, and fully armed as terrorists. The subtext is that we are to fear and hate these people who want to destroy us and push us into the sea.
I just learned that the school I used to guard in Tuqu' has been teargassed. An 8-year old student was arrested and detained because he threw a rock. I don't condone rock throwing, but have you ever tried to control an 8-year old boy who has access to thousands of rocks on his way to school? Little boys are magnets for rocks, regardless of whether you live in Bethlehem or Portland, OR. As I looked at photos posted by the current EA living in the house in Bethlehem where I spend 3 months earlier this year, I wanted to cry. These are eager students, young children bursting with exuberance at being 8 years old, innocent, precious. The military jeep is ominous, with Israeli flags flying at all four corners of the vehicle, containing two fully armed military soldiers. The situation I went into to try to make life better for the Palestinians has become worse.
Since the UN vote, the Israelis have made life even more miserable. The escalation of settlement building, the confiscation of land, the cutting down of olive trees, the violence of settlers has all become worse. This week the EAs in Bethlehem climbed a hillside north of the illegal settlement of Ephrat where they found a tent with an Israel flag flying and land being cleared. When I was visiting this "colony," one of the settlers, Bob, explained the plan to expand the settlement to the hills surrounding Ephrat. Now a tent stands on this hillside near Ephrat, and the land is being cleared for settlement building. Bob explained that they had been approved to build 400 more buildings, and it appears that some may be on this new expansion site. The Palestinian family who owns the land is mourning its loss. It was just taken--no deed of sale, no money transferred.
This week in Nahalin, a village just outside of Bethlehem, a loud speaker in the village announced that olive trees were being destroyed by settlers from Betar Illit, an illegal settlement of about 30,000 inhabitants, built on former grazing land of the people of Nahalin and Wadi Fukin. By the time the citizens of Nahalin reached the area, the military had blocked the roads and could only watch as the settlers cut down trees on their property. This property has not been taken by the settlers of Betar Illit, and the families who counted on the proceeds of the olives now have lost their source of income.
It is Christmas Eve, and preparations are being made to greet the Christ Child in Bethlehem, and all over the world. I pray that one day this little town on the hill, Bethlehem, will see peace. May we all bring the newborn child into our midst, nourish him, and listen to his wisdom.