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27 December, 2017 00:00 00 AM
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Few Christians left in Bethlehem

Jonathan Cook

It is another anxious Christmas for the inhabitants of Bethlehem. This is the time of year when they have a chance to break out of isolation enforced in concrete since Israel enclosed the town with a “separation wall” more than a decade ago. On Christmas Eve, in a centuries-old tradition, Palestinian and foreign pilgrims rub shoulders as they throng in the ancient Church of the Nativity to celebrate the anniversary of the birth of Jesus at its reputed location two millennia ago.

Outside, in Manger Square, the lights and baubles on a huge Christmas tree provide some festive glitz, while hawkers assail the tourists, exploiting the chance to sell them Santa hats and stocking fillers of plastic light sabres and illuminated spinning tops.

Most of the foreign pilgrims enter Bethlehem by coach through a gate in the wall heavily policed by Israeli soldiers. They disembark at the church’s entrance and most depart for Jerusalem as soon as the event is over. Nowadays few tourists get to meet or talk to a Palestinian in Bethlehem. Earlier this year, Israel tried to further choke off tourism revenue by warning travel agencies that their groups must not stay overnight in Bethlehem’s handful of cheap hotels.

Largely sealed off from the world, Bethlehem is today almost as well known for its graffiti, visible from coaches on the pilgrim trail through the wall, as the nativity. Amid iconic images by Banksy, the famous British street artist, is the handiwork of local paint-sprayers. One message to the world scrawled across the eight-metre-high grey slabs announces: “Merry Christmas from Bethlehem ghetto”.

The town now has access to little more than a tenth of its original territory, with homes cut off from farmland, water sources and historic landmarks. A host of ever-expanding Jewish settlements around Bethlehem have been gorging on the rich pickings of their imprisoned neighbours.

Bethlehem’s despondency was heightened this month by the decision of US President Donald Trump to recognise Jerusalem as the capital of Israel. That declaration has sparked repeated clashes between Bethlehem’s youth and Israeli occupation forces.

Traditionally, the fates of these cities, the two primary destinations for pilgrims, were intimately tied. Before the construction of the wall, they were only a short drive apart. Now Jerusalem is almost unreachable for Bethlehem’s inhabitants, while Bethlehem itself has become an increasingly unappealing prospect for most outsiders.

Amid the gloom, however, there were two small tidings of joy this month.

Banksy, who earlier this year established a graffiti-themed hotel called the Walled Off Hotel – boasting the “worst view in the world” – put on an alternative nativity play for local children in the shadow of the wall and its armed watch-towers. A two-part BBC documentary shown last week about the planning and staging of The Alternativity gave international audiences a rare up-close view of life in the Bethlehem ghetto. The other success was a screening this month on Capitol Hill of Leila Sansour’s documentary Open Bethlehem. Along with their invite, US Congress members were sent a “Bethlehem passport”, making them honorary citizens of the town.

Ms Sansour’s film was meant to prick consciences. It charts Bethlehem’s gradual incarceration and the decision of her own extended family to desert the town, like many other Christians, for opportunities abroad.

The writer is a commentator on

Middle East affairs

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Published by the Editor on behalf of Independent Publications Limited at Media Printers, 446/H, Tejgaon I/A, Dhaka-1215.
Editorial, News & Commercial Offices : Beximco Media Complex, 149-150 Tejgaon I/A, Dhaka-1208, Bangladesh. GPO Box No. 934, Dhaka-1000.

Editor : M. Shamsur Rahman
Published by the Editor on behalf of Independent Publications Limited at Media Printers, 446/H, Tejgaon I/A, Dhaka-1215.
Editorial, News & Commercial Offices : Beximco Media Complex, 149-150 Tejgaon I/A, Dhaka-1208, Bangladesh. GPO Box No. 934, Dhaka-1000.

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