I am 55 years old. When I was born, Christians in Bethlehem numbered almost 90 percent of the people living there. Now it is less than 10 percent and falling. Christians in Bethlehem and the rest of the West Bank are ruthlessly oppressed by Islamists. Most Westerners are unaware that Hamas controls the town, with the Palestinian Authority of little influence. During the week I traveled there in autumn of 2007, 100 Christian families were physically kicked out of their houses by Muslim Palestinians while the PA police literally stood by and watched. I did not see it. I learned it from non-Israeli Westerners living in Jerusalem, one of whom I spoke with having personally assisted some of the families in their new refugee status.
Hamas might (or might not) intend to leave just enough Christians in Bethlehem to make sure the thriving tourism business of Western Christians stays profitable. By New Year's, almost 1.5 million tourists will have visited Bethlehem this year, a record. They bring an enormous monetary inflow into the West Bank. More Eastern European and Near East Christian pilgrims visit than Americans, but Americans are very numerous and tend to spend more money each. The gift shops are clean and well stocked (I bought my home's Nativity set in one) and are operated by Christian Palestinians, but they own the businesses in name only. They stay in business only by the forbearance of the PA, who taxes them heavily. Any Christian business operator and all Christian tour guides must be politically vetted by Hamas PA in order to operate. These Christians will unfailingly assure you that relationships among Christians and Muslims in the West Bank are simply superb. And then they will quickly move on to another topic.
The Israeli security fence, erected because of the Second Intifada's bombing campaign against Israel, separates Bethlehem from Jerusalem. Traversing means passing through a military-grade checkpoint. Driving from Israeli-controlled Jerusalem into Hamas-controlled Bethlehem was unencumbered. Vehicles pretty much breezed right through. The Palestinians have no fear of Israeli suicide bombers coming to devastate their buses or restaurants. After all, there are no Israeli suicide bombers.
I took the photo above from the Palestinian side of the checkpoint. As the backed-up traffic shows, there is no breezing through from Bethlehem to Jerusalem. Vehicles and pedestrians are inspected. Tour buses generally get through pretty quickly since not even Hamas is dumb enough (well, yet) to try to plant a bomb or terrorist aboard one, which would end tourists and pilgrim coming to the West Bank, a far too expensive outcome for them to accept.
Near the checkpoint proper there are instructions in Hebrew, Arabic and English. All street sings in Israel are in those three languages.
The Palestinians put up propaganda on their side of the security fence.
The Israelis put up propaganda on their side, too, but of a definitely peaceful sort:
I found the mural ironic, since whatever they Israelis and Palestinians have, "love and peace" ain't it, on either side.
Most of the entire West Bank is enclosed by a security fence, about 700 kilometers. About six percent of the distance is a wall rather than a fence because of the density of the buildings present. The fence generally follows the "Green Line," but the Green Line is ill defined in some places. The Green Line, btw, is the ceasefire line agreed to in 1949, at the close of Irael's war for independence. It is not actually a border of any kind. It is called the Green Line because it was drawn on the negotiators' map with a green pencil. Really.
This shot of the security wall was taken near the unused Jerusalem airport. Rock throwers shut the airport down some years ago. They threw rocks over the wall above at airliners landing or just onto the runway, the horizontal, flat gray feature just below the wall. Any pilot who may be reading can imagine how eager airline pilots were to land on runways covered in rocks.
Despite the international controversy about the fence/wall, it would be very hard to find an Israeli of any political stripe who would call for its removal. The fence was erected by a government very reluctant to do so, and was opposed by both Labor and Likud. But the bombings of the Second Intifada, begun in 2000, became so severe that the people demanded the barrier go up. Since it went up, terrorist violence inside Israel has fallen by 80-95 percent, depending the on the region of the country.
The barrier has made life harder for the Palestinians, who complain that it has degraded their quality of life. The typical Israeli responds, "Our lives come before your quality of life." Hard to argue with that.
Yossi Klein Halevi, a prominent Israeli journalist, said the barrier should be named the "Yasser Arafat Memorial Wall."
But back to Bethlehem. During the 4th century Constantine declared Christianity the official religion of the Roman empire. His mother, Queen Helena, traveled across the Holy Land and managed to identify many of the precise locations of significance in Jesus' life. ("Why yes, your Highness, you're right: this is the place where Jesus fed the multitude!") One of those places was the birthplace of Jesus. Since that day, Christian shrines have been been successively erected atop it and other identified sites. Most of the present Church of the Nativity dates from the Crusades. This is the interior of the Crusader section.
The traditional birth site of Jesus is well below this level, the site of a (presumed) small cave in the rocky hillside.
During my time here, a large group of Eastern-church pilgrims came through. They were clearly overwhelmed with emotion. Most of them knelt on both knees and kissed the star embedded in the floor and left to the left, crying. I confess to have been stricken emotionally at two sites I visited, but this was not one of them (neither was the Church of the Resurrection).
Bethlehem is in economic boom times now, but Islam is overwhelmingly powerful there, with Hamas' brand on the rise. Hamas' candidates in fact won a majority of municipal elections in Bethlehem. Since 1995, only Christians are permitted to be the town's mayor, but present Mayor Victor Batarseh was hand-picked for the office by Hamas. Batarseh previously was known for his atheism, militant Marxism and very active membership in the radical Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine. The PFLP assassinated Israeli Cabinet Minister Rehavam Ze’evi in Jerusalem in 2002. Bartarseh has since held that the assassination “was legitimate retaliation for Israeli state terror.”
Occupying the majority of city council seats and with Batarseh as mayor, Hamas, whose charter calls for the destruction of Israel, is in iron control of the birthplace of the Prince of Peace. His followers there subsist at leave of the Islamists or, if they are able or compelled, move out of the West Bank. It is too dangerous to remain, just as it was for Jesus 2,000 years ago.
Related: "Bethlehem belongs to Hamas," in Israel Today.