Palestinian Christians who want to celebrate Christmas in Bethlehem, the birthplace of Jesus, face a lot of problems mainly because of Israeli military checkpoints and the security barrier that separate Bethlehem from Jerusalem.
According to Wafa news agency since its occupation in 1967 by Israel, the landscape of the biblical city of Bethlehem and its area towns such as Beit Jala to west and Beit Sahour to the east, all Christian towns, has changed dramatically.
Bethlehem is now surrounded by not only an 8-meter high concrete wall with barbed wire on top that separates it from its historical northern neighbor, Jerusalem, and most of its fertile agricultural land, but also by a series of Jewish settlements that have suffocated the city and expropriated almost all its land.
The wall Israel has built since 2003 has separated Bethlehem from about 12 percent of its land. Residents of Bethlehem cannot access their land in the area behind the wall without a special Israeli army permit, which is rarely given, according to the news agency.
The Cremisan monastery to the northwest of Beit Jala found itself gradually losing most of its land to that wall, and so is the Salesian school and monastery, which is waiting for an Israeli court to decide if the wall is going to cut right through church land or not. Under the pretext of security, the court is expected to rule in favor of the wall, informs Wafa.
In addition to the 12 percent taken from the Bethlehem district to the wall, almost 76 percent were expropriated over the years to build four major town-like settlements – Har Homa, Gilo, Har Gilo and Givate Hamatos, not mentioning the cluster of smaller settlements built on land taken from Bethlehem-area villages, including the Gush Eztion settlement block that is gradually growing to reach Jerusalem.
As a result, what is left for Bethlehem today is a mere 13 percent of its original area, and even that much Israel is trying to reduce with checkpoints, army installations and major highways to facilitate movement of Jewish settlers to Jerusalem and maybe in the future to the Dead Sea.
An area of Beit Sahour known as Oush Ghurab (Crow’s Nest) is under threat of takeover as settlers from a movement known as Women in Green are trying to build a new settlement in that area, a former military outpost, claiming the settlement would prevent Arab expansion near a road settlers use to connect them to two nearby settlements, Tekoa and Nikodim, where Israeli Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman lives, informs Wafa.
Standing on what was once an area of Beit Jala and where Mar Elias monastery is located on the northern outskirts of the town, Father Ibrahim Shoumali, a resident of Beit Jala, said the area of his town has until recently extended all the way to where the monastery is located.
“For over 160 years, the procession of the Latin patriarch coming from Jerusalem on Christmas Eve would stop at Mar Elias on its way to the Church of Nativity in Bethlehem,” he said.
The tradition was that the mayor of Beit Jala and other town officials and town residents would greet the patriarch there and join the procession to Bethlehem.
But today, after Israel had cut off that part of Beit Jala and annexed it to Jerusalem and after building the wall that separated it from the town center, none of the Beit Jala residents are able to welcome the patriarch at Mar Elias anymore.
Most of that area, all church-owned land, was transformed into major settlements, including Har Homa and Gilo, explains Wafa.
According to Suhail Khalilieh, from the Bethlehem-based Applied Research Institute – Jerusalem (ARIJ), because only 13 percent of the area of Bethlehem, Beit Jala and Beit Sahour is left for these towns to expand, construction has been limited horizontally while it increased vertically causing over crowdedness and many social problems.
Many of the Bethlehem area towns’ Christian residents opted to immigrate to Western countries to avoid the hardships of the new realities created by the Israeli occupation and expropriation of their lands.
According to other sources the palestinian guides are not allowed to cross the Israeli checkpoints and everything is organized to promote the pilgrims staying in Jerusalem and making daily visits to Bethlehem.
However this year Bethlehem has experienced a return of pilgrims remaining in the city. They will see the Church of the Nativity with an unexpected appearance. Filled with scaffolding due to works that are being made to resolve the leaks from the rooftop and windows. Also will have to cope with a colder weather than usual. But none of that matters. What is really important is being in Bethlehem to celebrate Christmas in the church with the older daily cult of the world and in the place where Jesus was born.