FOR two millennia, the town of Bethlehem has held a special place in the hearts of Christians. To celebrate the birth of Christ in this town, just a few kilometres south of the famed city of Jerusalem, families have set up cribs in their homes and children have been performing nativity plays in schools and churches.
Through these re-enactments of the nativity, Bethlehem has become synonymous with the sleepy, celebratory time spent with family and friends and hope for the new year that characterise Christmas.
Sadly, this festive image is far from the reality of Bethlehem’s 25,000 inhabitants. Bethlehem is rich in history and culture. It sits with verdant hills and valleys on one side, and the sprawling city of Jerusalem on the other. In normal circumstances, Bethlehem would be thriving, but circumstances are not normal. It is a city squeezed by political circumstance.
The most visually striking feature of the Israeli occupation, which has constricted life in Bethlehem since 1967, is the separation barrier.
The barrier looms over Bethlehem as an imposing, 3m concrete wall. Aside from dominating the landscape, the barrier separates Bethlehem from much of the land owned by its people, and, crucially, it also severs it from Jerusalem.
Since 2002, the Israeli government has been constructing the barrier — a network of fences, walls, and other structures — ostensibly to safeguard the security of the Israeli people by physically separating them from the Palestinians.
A 2004 advisory ruling of the International Court of Justice clearly stated that the barrier’s route — more than 90% of it winding through Palestinian territory — breaches international law. Its construction has sparked condemnation from the EU; the US government; the United Nations, and a wide range of international organisations, including the International Committee of the Red Cross.
And yet, construction continues.
On the outskirts of Bethlehem sits the picturesque Cremisan Valley, home to monastic orders since the 7th century. Presently, both a Salesian convent and monastery are sited in the valley.
The monastery also hosts one of the region’s few vineyards, producing Cremisan Cellars wines from the valley’s own grapes.
For the past decade, these religious communities have been fighting to prevent the expansion of the separation barrier through their lands and through the lands of the valley’s Palestinian communities. Despite a 2015 Israeli Supreme Court ruling calling for the barrier’s rerouting, construction continues.
The barrier was developed in response to the second intifada, in 2005. Ostensibly, it protects Israelis from the Palestinians in the West Bank. Israeli statistics suggest that the barrier has reduced the number of attacks on Israelis, but it also serves many other, less laudable purposes. When the International Court of Justice ruled, in 2005, that the planned route of the separation barrier was in breach of international law, the primary issue it cited was its planned construction on Palestinian land. More than 90% of the barrier will run through lands envisioned (under the Oslo process, and negotiated between the Israeli government and the Palestinian Authority in the early 1990s) as a future, autonomous Palestinian homeland.
At the Cremisan Valley, the barrier runs over 3km on the Palestinian side of the Green Line, the 1948 Arab-Israeli war’s armistice line, regarded by the international community as Israel’s border.
The barrier not only cuts off the Palestinian people living in the area from the land they grew up in, but cements Israeli control over land deep inside Palestinian territory. It establishes, in concrete, Israeli control over the land and physically incorporates Palestinian land into the Israeli state.
As Christians around the world celebrate the nativity, the land in which Christ was born suffers. The town of Jesus’s birth is being continually squeezed by Israeli encroachment and by the imposition of the winding separation barrier through its land.
There is, sadly, no shortage of misery in the world this Christmas. But Bethlehem cannot afford to be ignored any longer. As the separation barrier expands, Bethlehem’s territory shrinks and shrinks. Its continued ability to exist as a viable town reduces every year. Without concerted international action, Palestine will disappear and with it the once sleepy town of Bethlehem.