I wonder how many Christian politicians in the West, from Washington to Westminster, Paris to Berlin, took time out in the past few days to watch their children or grandchildren perform in the school nativity play. While the more sentimental wiped away their tears as they watched the children’s recreation of the Biblical story of the birth of Jesus, peace be upon him, did they give a second thought for those who live in Bethlehem today?
Images of the nativity which are set up lovingly every year in government buildings, schools and town halls around the Christian world are regarded as an important tradition, although in the White House, apparently, Barack Obama thought about scrapping the traditional manger scene altogether. Those close to the US president said that he wanted to make Christmas more inclusive and felt uncomfortable about the East Room being used to give a prominent display to the three wise men, shepherds, Mary, Joseph and the Baby Jesus, along with all of the animals and a host of angels gathered for the manger scene.
While tradition won out in the end, is it possible that the real reason Obama feels uncomfortable is because he knows that in the 21st century the journey from Nazareth to Bethlehem would never happen because of Israeli checkpoints, the Apartheid Wall and the generally abusive treatment that travellers receive at the hands of the paranoid Israeli security forces? He knows that all of this happens simply because America chooses to look the other way. The silence in Washington is seen by Tel Aviv as a green light to continue trampling over human rights of Palestinians every day. The reality is that if Mary and Joseph set off to Bethlehem today the story would be very different; in any case, certainly not one of glad tidings and joy. It is more than likely that they would never reach Bethlehem because of the heartlessness and cruelty of Israeli soldiers, who have full power over who will pass a checkpoint and who will not.
In my darkest hours I’m still haunted by the screams of a woman in an ambulance held back at one such barrier in the occupied West Bank. I was on my way to Jenin when I saw the ambulance, with lights flashing, being stopped by an Israeli soldier. It took me three hours waiting in blistering heat without any shelter before I was allowed to travel, after some timely intervention by British Embassy staff; when I went through the ambulance was still being held back and had been joined by another one.
Inside the first ambulance was a Palestinian woman experiencing a difficult labour and in need of urgent medical intervention. The Israeli soldier was an obnoxious youth from Argentina who refused to allow the ambulance through despite my pleading; others also urged him to relent but the callous individual refused to show one ounce of mercy. After creating a fuss I was unable to find out who was in the second ambulance, but was told that both were emergency cases.
Halla Shoaibi of the University of Michigan estimates that within the period that she conducted a study of this phenomenon, 2000 to 2007, 10 percent of pregnant Palestinian women were delayed at checkpoints while travelling to hospital to give birth in the occupied Palestinian territories. One result of this has been a dramatic increase in the number of home births, with women preferring to avoid road trips while in labour for fear of not being able to reach the hospital in time. Their fears are well-founded; according to Shoaibi, 69 babies were born at checkpoints during those seven years, of which 35 died, along with five mothers in childbirth. She believes that this amounts to yet another crime against humanity committed by Israel.
The sad reality is that had Mary set out from Nazareth today she would probably have given birth at a checkpoint, and there would be a strong chance of Baby Jesus not surviving. The soldiers might even have ordered her to strip to prove that she was really pregnant before making lewd comments and jokes, such are the indignities encountered daily by those travelling to and from Bethlehem. I know, for I’ve seen it with my own eyes. Hence, every festive season, the sight of cribs and mangers around the country triggers painful memories of that visit to the Holy Land, when I witnessed the callous and inhumane way in which the Israeli checkpoints are manned.
Bethlehem is now choked by illegal settlements in the once Biblical landscape. One of the settlements, Har Homa, is built on land where the angels are said to have announced the birth of Jesus to local shepherds which prompted them to head for the stable to view the manger; they, too, would find it difficult to get past the checkpoints.
The three wise men of the nativity story — Balthasar, Melchior and Caspar — are reputed to have been from Persia. They would stand no chance of even entering the country today; indeed, they would be arrested and accused of being Iranian agents of Iran plotting to buy nuclear secrets (of which Israel has plenty).
The European Union and United Nations denounce Israel’s out-of-control settlement expansion as a matter of routine. In October, though, EU High Commissioner Catherine Ashton warned that the construction of Givat Hamatos was “of particular concern as [it] would cut the geographic contiguity between Jerusalem and Bethlehem.”
The supposedly Christian decision-makers in the West appear to have little concern for their Palestinian co-religionists struggling under Israeli occupation, despite pronouncements such as Ashton’s. As such, unless and until they decide to stand up for Christians and Christianity, as they are keen to do when the violators are Muslims elsewhere in the Middle East, the festival of Christmas really will become a thing of the past in the town where, traditionally, it all started. Bethlehem is already being strangled by Israel’s actions; inaction by the West will give it the go-ahead to apply the coup de grace. Does anyone in Washington and London, Paris and Berlin even care?