We have come to the time of year when many childhood memories of Santa Claus are evoked and Christians are reminded of the birth of a Son. Some will celebrate the re-birth of a Sun as the low point of the winter solstice is passed and the days at last grow longer. Others will give presents just because it’s so good to give, and as they decorate trees and festoon their rooms with boughs of holly and the like, the pagan origins of this festival will be forgotten. Forgotten too will be the people in present day Bethlehem in their struggle for justice and security.
In 1948, many refugees from areas captured by Israeli forces fled to the Bethlehem area of what is now known as the West Bank, primarily settling in what were to become official refugee camps. This influx of refugees significantly transformed Bethlehem's Christian majority into a Muslim one.
The population of Bethlehem today is composed of Muslim and Christian Palestinians. Muslims and Christians have been living together peacefully for generations and they share one fundamental violation of human rights. Both Muslim and Christian Palestinians have no right to move freely in and out of their own town.
Today Bethlehem is surrounded by an 8 metre high separation wall, dwarfing the Berlin Wall which stood at a mere 3.65 metres. Built by the Israeli occupation forces it has been condemned by the International Court of Justice who found that "the construction of the wall, and its associated régime, are contrary to international law". In other words the wall is illegal, yet it exists, and grows.
No-one can enter Bethlehem without going through one of the 69 military checkpoints and showing their ID’s and necessary permits. Border guards tend to make up the rules as they go along and checkpoints can be closed without warning. If Jesus had been born in Bethlehem today the 3 wise men would have had to queue like cattle for several hours to get through a checkpoint, had their hands scanned, been searched, and quite possibly turned away as the gold, frankincense and myrrh they carried would be highly questionable.
Should the labouring mother of a present day Jesus require assistance in her childbirth, she would find that obtaining medical treatment is particularly problematic for pregnant Palestinian women about to give birth as the delivery date is largely unpredictable. Often Palestinians are only allowed to travel on foot - not by car - and they have to use old and unmaintained roads. The checkpoints are only open by day, so a night time problem has to wait. The permits given are only valid for one or two days, therefore the women must constantly renew their permits, and as a consequence, in some instances, mothers have entered labor and given birth at checkpoints because they did not have up-to-date permits. Between the years 2000 and 2006, more than 68 Palestinian women gave birth at Israeli checkpoints. Of these, 35 women miscarried, and five died in childbirth.
In the Bethlehem area alone there are 19 illegal settlements taking valuable land from local Palestinian families and choking communities. The wall isolates 25% of Palestinian agricultural land and the farmers have to obtain permits on a daily basis and pass through checkpoints to access their own fields. A modern shepherd watching the stars as portent to a famous birth would have either had his land confiscated, or might possibly have to wait until morning to obtain a permit to cross into Bethlehem.
87% of Bethlehem’s land has been taken by Israeli occupation forces which forces Palestinians to live in cramped conditions. In some places the wall is built so close to buildings that the windows are blocked and daylight cannot enter the rooms. The wall has cut people off from their shops and their precious land and olive trees; busy roads have become dead ends. Bethlehem was once a thriving, bustling town, now one in five people are unemployed. If Jesus was born in Bethlehem today the innkeeper would be struggling to keep his business going. There would be plenty of room at the inn.
People of good conscience can help restore justice to Bethlehem in many ways.
1. The Boycott, Divestment, Sanctions (BDS) campaign is a call from Palestinians to consumers to stop buying goods made in the Occupied Territories. Often clothing and food products are labeled ‘made in Israel’ when they are not. www.bigcampaign.org lists some organizations you should avoid whilst out shopping.
2. Buy real Palestinian products here at www.palestineonlinestore.com and help enable the fragile infrastructure and jobs
3. Talk about it. Palestine is the news. Look beyond your usual news providers and interrogate the internet for differing points of view. It is only by constantly re-evaluating what you know that justice can be won.
Oh little town of Bethlehem, Imprisoned now you lie.
Above thy deep and silent grief, Surveillance drones now fly.
Full words can be found at http://www.leedspsc.org.uk/?p=546