The tourists heading to Bethlehem this festive season will come from far and wide – but all of them will enjoy more freedom of movement than the city’s residents do, Muslim and Christian alike, in their own land.
Such is life under Israeli apartheid, and the historical town has not been spared Israel’s decades-long policies of colonisation and segregation. There are 22 illegal settlements in the Bethlehem governorate, and just in the last year, Jewish extremists have been protected by the Israeli army in a gradual takeover of land in Beit Sahour (home to the Shepherds’ Fields).
The Israeli colonies surrounding Bethlehem continue to grow. In August, the Applied Research Institute-Jerusalem highlighted how “Israeli settlers are working to turn illegal outposts in eastern Bethlehem into permanent settlements officially recognized by the Israeli government”.
Israel also continues to confiscate land and destroy Palestinian agriculture around Bethlehem, such as the uprooting of 40 olive trees this month as part of work being done to construct a road cutting off al-Walaja village from its lands. With settlements, the Separation Wall, and other restrictions, only 13 percent of the Bethlehem region is available for Palestinian use, according to UN estimates.
Israel’s regime of checkpoints and travel permits continue to have a drastic effect on Bethlehem’s economy and the ability of its residents to enjoy their basic rights to freedom of movement and worship. In Easter this year, the city’s parishes received just “30 to 40 percent of requested permits to visit Jerusalem”. Special occasions aside, draconian restrictions are par for the course: in and around Bethlehem there are an estimated 30 physical barriers to Palestinian freedom of movement.
These policies have naturally had a calamitous effect on the city’s economy, with one of the highest unemployment rates in the West Bank and Gaza Strip. Even tourism, a key part of the city’s ability to generate wealth, remains under threat from Israeli efforts to “appropriate Bethlehem”.
Nor is Bethlehem exempt from the Israeli military’s suppression of efforts to resist occupation. In recent weeks, there have been frequent clashes in places like the city’s Aida refugee camp, where Israeli soldiers snatch residents and deploy lethal force against youth raised in the shadow of an apartheid wall.
One Bethlehem resident, Daoud Nassar, will be celebrating Christmas this year while worried about ongoing Israeli military efforts to target his family farm outside of the city. His story, which I have written about before, is typical of Israel’s colonisation strategies and systematic discrimination.
The Nassar’s family land, on which they run the Tent of Nations project, has long been a target for expropriation attempts and demolition orders. One such example is 13 outstanding demolition orders which the family is trying to challenge in the courts for things like tents and a water cistern. International supporters stand with them.
Speaking to Daoud this week, he said that they are “prepared for the worst”, with “January and February the most critical months” based on past experience of when the Israeli authorities have given them demolition or stop work orders. “Meanwhile”, he says, “facts are being created on the ground, with settlements expanding and houses being added to them on a daily basis”. He added: “But we are still here, and defending our right to be here.”
In the last few years, Israeli officials have tried to score propaganda points in light of the turmoil and sectarian violence occurring across the region, by saying that Israel is the only country in the Middle East where Christians are thriving.
Putting aside the emigration of Christian Palestinians under Israeli apartheid – a trend clearly driven by “economics and occupation” – such rhetoric is no doubt aimed in part at trying to slow the unmistakable trend amongst many churches in the West to demonstrate meaningful solidarity with Palestinians through boycott and divestment campaigns.
For those who care to see, you can find a microcosm of Israel’s colonisation of Palestine in Bethlehem. The refugee camps home to those expelled from their villages in the ethnic cleansing that enabled a majority Jewish citizenry – and often also home to ongoing efforts to resist occupation and apartheid. The choking Wall, with its route that exposes the ‘security’ justification. The struggling businesses, unable to flourish in conditions designed to maintain Palestinian dependency. The villages, increasingly cut off from the city and under pressure from colonies and settlers.
This is the Bethlehem home to a Muslim and Christian population that, like the rest of the Palestinians, urges the world to support their rights to freedom and equality. Despite the sign placed at the entrance to the Bethlehem Bantustan by the Israeli government, this Christmas is another reminder that without justice, there can be no real peace.
The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Monitor.