Christmas in Bethlehem

Tipping Point Film Fund supported film-maker Leila in BethlehemLeila Sansour sends you a Christmas message.

Christmas in Bethlehem is a time for tradition, though some traditions are newer than others. Over the last decade the regular PR battle over the city has become a staple part of the Christmas experience. Trails of reporters arrive as early as the beginning of November to scout locations. Their stories follow what has already become a seasonal format. The cameramen shoot pictures of the wall painting the grim reality of Bethlehem while reporters recite figures showing the decline of the local Christian population and the collapse of the tourist economy.

In the five years that I have served as the director of Open Bethlehem, I have been interviewed by everyone from national television stations to phone-in radio to student magazines. One of the most demanding and unpleasant parts of my job is dealing with those journalists who arrive with an all too familiar agenda to highlight Christian-Muslim discord. Bethlehem’s story is twisted to make communal strife the key factor in Bethlehem’s tragic story while downplaying the brutal realities of life under occupation. I have slowly learnt to recognise the journalists with a guilty conscience. The majority of them appear to recognise that they have not come to investigate. All they need is a quote from a random Christian willing to vent about a dispute they have with a Muslim neighbour. Once the reporters have got their sound-bite, they are gone. In a city that has been turned into a prison town and is dominated by so much tension this is not difficult to obtain. What is worrying about these phenomena is the energy that hostile news media put into turning Bethlehem’s story upside down. They have grasped the importance of our city in the seasonal PR battle better than our friends, and they have mobilised effectively to ensure that the truth remains hidden.

The reality on the ground, for anyone who cares to visit and look around, reveals a completely different story. The series of Israeli invasions into Bethlehem that began in November 2001 and continued throughout 2002 brought about the complete economic collapse of a city whose industry depends largely on tourism. 62% of Bethlehem’s population are dependent on the tourist sector. The wall which isolates Bethlehem from the outside world and from its sister city Jerusalem has hastened the decline. A UN report called ‘The Changing Face of Bethlehem’, published in 2004, predicts a grim future for Bethlehem, mentioning, of course, the dwindling Christian community which now numbers 30% of the population. 10% of Bethlehem’s Christians have left the city in the last six years alone.

Our own Open Bethlehem survey of 2006 shows that Christians have been the most affected by the construction of the wall since land ownership was concentrated in their hands, as Bethlehem’s oldest residents. The vast amount of land confiscated to build the wall has impoverished this community. Christians have also been in a better position to benefit from religious tourism, an industry which relies on an infrastructure shared between Bethlehem and Jerusalem. The separation of these cities has devastated Bethlehem-based companies which have offices in Jerusalem, or long-standing contracts with bus companies and tour operators. The fate of the tourism industry is just one example of the mutual interdependence of these two cities. Their ties go back centuries, creating a communal and economic infrastructure that means the cities cannot survive if they are forcibly separated.

It is the cumulative weight of the occupation that hits one so forcibly in Bethlehem. The social and political damage that the occupation is doing to the region and to the Middle East as a whole stares one in the face in my hometown. This is why Bethlehem is so important in the jigsaw of telling the story of Palestine and, more importantly, in winning friends. A tour of Bethlehem proves that Israeli occupation is a government-driven project aimed at seizing and annexing Palestinian land. The city’s proximity to Jerusalem and the strategic value of its water resources means that Bethlehem has always been coveted by Israel. As a result, settlements have been built with much greater intensity in this area than elsewhere.

Bethlehem’s compact geography reveals at a glance the extent and the appetite of the settlement project. Today Bethlehem is surrounded by more than twenty well-developed settlements. In a city ringed by hills, the settlements are for ever in one’s eye-line. They are designed to fence in the city, physically separating the city from its agriculture villages, neighbouring towns and, once again, from Jerusalem. When plans are approved for new units, Bethlehem wakes to the sound of drills and bulldozers echoing off the hills. I am particularly aware of this because I have combined work at Open Bethlehem with making a film about the city and the sound on my tapes is sometimes deafening. Once the outer walls of the housing units are thrown up, construction abruptly halts. Har Homa, the closest settlement to Bethlehem whose expansion seals the last remaining corridor between Bethlehem and Jerusalem, has been staring over Bethlehem with its unglazed windows for the past ten years. It is a settlement without settlers, built not to satisfy demand but to seize local land. Where it stood, there was once a tranquil pine forest.

Of course all other faces of the occupation are present here, too. The collapse of the economy means that many Bethlehemites can only make a living as cheap labourers in Israel. The Israeli military authorities have placed a ceiling on work permits, allowing 2000 people from a district of 175,000 to travel to Jerusalem each day. We can leave only from one exit and the queue of two thousand men stretches several hundred metres by opening time at 5.00 am. Those with medical permits also have to wait in line. Recently, the behaviour of Israeli soldiers has been getting uglier and their mood angrier which I believe can be attributed to their sense that the world is growing condemnatory of their government’s actions. Permits are easier to obtain for those working on the settlements that surround Bethlehem. Israeli construction companies obtain permits directly from the military for the 3000 locals desperate enough to work for below the Israeli minimum wage, building settlements on land confiscated from their own community.

Bethlehem is suffering like all Palestinian towns but its tragedy is uniquely visible. A visit to Bethlehem dispels all distractions with regards to the nature of the occupation and makes it very clear that East Jerusalem is key in any peace deal for a healthy future Palestinian state. The impact of the city’s experience is all the more powerful because Bethlehem’s heritage is a global heritage. The damage wrought upon the city – on its holy places, its physical geography and its sites of special archaeological interest – is felt by many around the world as a personal affront. Whether one believes that Christ is the Son of God or a beloved prophet, or simply the reason that we exchange gifts at Christmas, the ties that bind the world to Bethlehem are obvious and immediate.

This is the most famous little town on earth. The name Bethlehem transcends all of the unsavoury stereotypes that colour the image of Palestine. If my five years as the director of Open Bethlehem have taught me anything, it is that Bethlehem unlocks doors and opens ears. We do not need to beg for a hearing when we speak of Bethlehem: the world actually wants to know. Too often, however, our friends around the world, either underestimate its power or are simply too timid to focus on a story that resonates so strongly with our childhood hopes for Christmas. Israel’s supporters are not so delicate. Each Christmas, as the spotlight turns to Bethlehem they seek to change the story.

As we again approach Christmas, let us remember that day, many years ago, when a star shone over my city to mark a new message of peace and goodwill to all men. This message still reverberates today. No one leaves Bethlehem without seeing the urgent necessity of ending the occupation and seeing justice for the Palestinian people. Our task is to do everything we can to hasten that day. Too often, when we campaign for Palestine, we waste our limited resources on issues that the majority of people have grown tired of hearing about. The result is that we spend our efforts breaking down closed doors. When we focus our efforts on Bethlehem we find a willing audience. So this Christmas I ask you to think about how we can make the star of Bethlehem shine brighter. Every local paper, every newsletter or union magazine, every radio station or television channel, is more than happy to discuss Bethlehem at Christmas. It can be particularly effective to privately sponsor journeys to Bethlehem for local opinion-formers who will be invited to talk to the media on their return (vicars, councillors, union leaders, journalists, local dignitaries). Money and time is precious: find a Bethlehem project, back it and make sure everyone knows what you have done. Christmas is the one moment that the world comes to ask Palestinians for their story, we cannot afford to waste it.

For information on Leila’s film project Road to Bethlehem.

For donations to the Open Bethlehem campaign visit:

Leila Sansour, founding member of Open Bethlehem
Christmas in Bethlehem 2009

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