Palestinians queue up as they are tested for COVID-19 by Israeli medics before entering into Israel by the Erez border crossing.
Bethlehem expects people to attend tonight’s mass at the 19th century Catholic church of St. Catherine to celebrate Jesus’ birthday. In Manger Square the tallest pine tree has been adorned with coloured lights since early this month in hope of modest celebrations.
Last Christmas, Covid cancelled the lucrative holiday season as international arrivals declined dramatically and mass was conducted without a congregation in the church.
Before the pandemic, limited tickets for the mass were difficult to obtain and those without watched the service on a huge television screen in the square. In 2019, 1.5 million visitors, a record, travelled to the city.
In the run up to Christmas this year, thousands of foreigners booked hotel rooms and tours although they did not reach boom-time numbers. Unfortunately, they were forced to cancel when Israel closed its borders due to Omicron. Israel has, however, granted permits to about half Gaza’s 1,030 Christians to travel to Bethlehem this year. In 2020 only a few families were allowed to celebrate Christmas in the town and greet relatives in the West Bank.
Having completed decades of renovations, priests at the massive sixth century Orthodox Basilica of the Nativity adjoining St. Catherine’s had hoped to show off its glowing mosaics, restored paintings, and refurbished altar screen to pilgrims set to visit the grotto where, tradition holds, Jesus was born. The basilica, the oldest in the holy land, was named by UNESCO as the first Palestinian Heritage Site in 2012 and, because of water damage, promptly put on the list of endangered heritage until 2019 when the roof was fixed and declared sound. The Orthodox celebrate Christmas on Jan. 7 but benefit from the influx of visitors as do churches which mark Dec. 25 as the date of Jesus birth.
The little hill town’s hoteliers, artisans and shop keepers had been counting on tens of thousands if not hundreds of thousands of visitors this winter season until the omicron blitz began. Bethlehem protested when Israel made an exception for foreign Jewish youngsters enrolled in the “Birthright” programme which provides free trips to Israel with the aim of encouraging them to immigrate. The city’s very existence depends on foreign pilgrims and tourists. Revenue from these visitors comes to 90 per cent of the city’s annual earnings.
In their absence, Bethlehem has to depend on West Bankers, East Jerusalemites, and Israel’s Palestinian citizens who have to defy Omicron and brave Israeli checkpoints to make the journey to Bethlehem. Hundreds will heed Bethlehem’s plea. For many years now, Palestinian Muslims and Christians from northern Israel have ridden in buses to Bethlehem and East Jerusalem on holidays with the aim of keeping these cities alive and commercially viable. Palestinians see joining this organised effort as a patriotic duty.
Isolated by Israeli walls, military checkpoints, and for nearly two years, covid restrictions, many Bethlehemites have had little or no income and are forced to live on savings. Businessmen have been compelled to secure high interest loans to keep their firms from going under. As most Christians are employed in tourism, this community has been especially hard hit. If the Ramallah-based Palestinian Authority did not cover the costs of Bethlehem’s Christmas celebrations, there
would be none. The cash-strapped Authority, which has little authority even in its administrative centre in Ramallah, is in no position to subsidise the struggling, shrinking residents of Bethlehem.
When Palestinian and Israeli leaders signed the Oslo Accord in September 1993, Palestinians believed Israel’s army would withdraw from territory conquered in 1967, the occupation would end within five years, an independent Palestinian state would emerge and the “interim Palestinian Authority would hand over to a democratically elected government. Palestinian expectations were dashed when Israel stepped up its colonisation of land slated to be in the Palestinian state and the occupation deepened. Instead of throwing its weight behind the “two state solution,” the international community did nothing to halt Israeli colony expansion or press Israel to negotiate an end to the occupation, leaving the Palestinians under never-ending Israeli military rule.
Most pilgrims and tourists focus on Betlehem’s as the site of Jesus’ birth while the town tries to promote itself as a “city of peace.” Visitors know nothing of Bethlehem’s violent modern, medieval, and ancient history or of the bloody travails of Palestine, a land disputed for millennia by local warlords and regional and foreign empires.
The Canaanite town — named for the ancient fertility god Lahmu — entered history between 1350-1530 BC when mentioned in correspondence between Egyptian administrators and local officials. Bethlehem became part of the Israelite kingdom of the Old Testament’s King David in about 1,000 BC. His son, Solomon reigned from 970-931 BC, when his vast kingdom fractured. Since Palestine is a strategic stretch of territory forming a land bridge between Egypt and the Levant, the country was thereafter conquered by Assyrians, Babylonians, Persians and Romans who were in charge when Jesus was born.
Bethlehem was destroyed by the Romans during a second century AD Jewish revolt but was rebuilt in the third century by the Byzantine Empress Helena, mother of Constantine the Great. The town became part of the Arab empire following the Muslim conquest in 637. Muslim rule was disrupted by Western Christian Crusaders in 1099 but returned to the Muslims in 1187 by Salaheddin. In 1250, the Mamluks took control of Palestine and from 1515 the Ottomans reigned. They were ousted by Britain in 1918. Forty years later Israel seized 78 per cent of Palestine and in 1967, the remaining 22 per cent — Bethlehem, East Jerusalem, the West Bank and Gaza — fell under thedomination of Israel. It has surrounded Bethlehem with a wall and Israeli colonies with the intention of staying forever. As this brief resume shows no one stays forever.
Today’s Bethlehemites say, the town has become an “open air prison for Palestinians,” while continuing as an Israel-controlled pilgrim and tourist destination.