Hope from Bethlehem
“We are hopeful because history is not static.”
Thumbing its nose at the international community in this holiday season, the Israeli government is going ahead with building thousands of housing units in existing and new Jewish colonization settlements in the Bethlehem and Jerusalem areas. After living 29 years in the US, it is not easy to be living in Bethlehem area. Life can be at times hard, exhilarating, depressing, fun, and hopeful. Israel occupied this area in 1967, but the landscape had begun to change well before that. In 1948, Bethlehem became home to thousands of Palestinian refugees after more than 750,000 people were driven from their homes in what became Israel. Palestinians were forbidden to return, and three cramped refugee camps (Dheisheh, Azza, and Aida) add to the local migrants from villages whose lands were taken over.
The 180,000 native Christians and Muslims of Bethlehem are now restricted to develop in only 13% of the district land. Some 87% of our land is now under control by a ring of colonial settlements, military zones, and infrastructure restricted to Israeli occupiers’ use. Since 2002, we have faced the enormous human costs of a massive, concrete segregation wall. The wall zigzags around Bethlehem, placing fertile Palestinian agricultural lands and most of our water resources on the “Israeli side” and in many cases goes straight through centuries-old villages — separating Palestinian families from each other and from their jobs, hospitals, schools, churches, and mosques. The wall and checkpoints mean that many faculty and students can no longer make it to school at Bethlehem University and our student body has steadily lost its geographic diversity. The biblical and literal path from Nazareth to Bethlehem is blocked by many checkpoints and thirty-foot-high slabs of concrete.
Many of my relatives lost jobs in Jerusalem or lost livelihoods that depended on the city of which we are a suburb. It is virtually impossible for West Bank Palestinians to obtain permits to enter Jerusalem or for Jerusalemites to engage in commerce with us. Even if one gets a rare permit (a tiny percent do), checkpoints make travel unpredictable and often impossible, precluding maintaining a decent economy. Unemployment is now at 35%. But other disadvantaged segments of society suffer more: children and women. Because of the current demographics, 50-60% of Palestinians are children and they are the most vulnerable/suffering. Malnutrition is common. Women have to pay a heavier price than men because the occupation is added on top of a traditional male dominated society (though this last part is changing).
But we in Bethlehem can be thankful that we are not living in Gaza where things are far worse, and where just in one week in November, Israeli forces killed 191, including 48 children. The UN predicts Gaza will become unlivable by 2020. The whole area feels like a ticking time bomb. Israel’s desire to acquire maximum geography with minimum Palestinian demography is the root of the suffering afflicting the Holy Land. Today there are nearly seven million Palestinian refugees and displaced people. Amnesty International has observed that the “peace processes” failed because Israel has ignored human rights, including the right of native Palestinians to return to their homes and lands. There is now a broad international consensus (with the exceptions of the US and Israeli governments) on the danger to international peace and security posed by Israel’s continued violations of human rights and international law. Clearly if one wants peace in the Middle East and beyond, the path starts by giving justice to Palestinians. I am doubly pained as an American and a Palestinian Christian because my taxes support this 60-year carnage. Israel is the largest recipient of US foreign aid and the US administrations still go out of their way to cater to Israeli lobby influences.
Israel as the occupying power is responsible for the welfare of those under its military rule per the applicable Geneva conventions. Yet, Israel has intentionally de-developed the Palestinian economy. With the collusion of the EU and the US, the economy of the West Bank and Gaza became even more dependent on Western “humanitarian aid.” Some 30% of this aid is siphoned off into Israel and some 30% goes to support Palestinian “security forces” whose job seems to focus not on protecting Palestinians from settler attacks but on fighting any Palestinians who dare to resist the occupation or challenge the usurpation of their land.
There is a system of corruption involving governments and “authorities” trickling down to people. This is coupled with a media strategy that makes it look as if the only choices available to Palestinians are blowing themselves up or capitulation and endless negotiations. This sad state of affairs did not just happen but was engineered and is actively managed to perpetuate occupation and dependency. Why else would Israel deny entry to academics coming to teach at the universities here, or entry to equipment for even the simplest of industries? Why deny Gaza electric power and equipment to treat the sewage and thus let sewage of 1.5 million people flow into the Mediterranean Sea polluting Europe and even Tel Aviv?
The logic of military and political power dictates that Israel is now building more Jewish settlements and demolishing more Palestinian homes and farms in spite its obligations under signed agreements and under international law. The Obama administration and Congress (beholden to the pro-Zionist lobby) stand isolated among the community of nations in its support of this apartheid regime.
But we are hopeful because history is not static. Here in Bethlehem, we derive strength from knowing that previous foreign military occupations came and went, including the Roman one that existed at Jesus’ time. We derive hope from the fact that the crusaders ended after 130 years of trying to change this country to become monolithic. Zionism is also bound to fail in its similar task. We derive hope from thousands of visitors who come every year to show us solidarity. We derive energy from our work for peace with justice. We derive strength from the positive reaction received by churches around the world for the Palestine Kairos document. We derive strength from the growth of the boycotts, divestment, and sanctions movement (a la that implemented against apartheid in South Africa).
In this season celebrating the birth of Jesus, let us all resolve to work for ending racism, occupation, and apartheid. Let us insist on the rights of refugees to return and build a democratic society for its entire people in the Holy Land. When we succeed, people of all religions (Jews, Christians, and Muslims) and all backgrounds will share this small piece of earth in harmony and peace.
The views and opinions expressed by the author do not necessarily reflect the views and opinions of Peace X Peace.