A New Christmas Story: Bethlehem under Occupation

Media Briefs
December 15, 2010

“Separating Bethlehem from Jerusalem and the rest of the world, will not bring peace."

Roman Catholic Patriarch Fouad Twal

In many ways Bethlehem has become the quintessential Palestinian city under occupation: its population confronted with daily abuse, its historic geography and landscape ruined by the expansion of illegal settlements, the serpentine Israeli Separation Wall cutting deep into its heart and severing it from its ancient political, social, economic and religious links to Jerusalem and the rest of the West Bank, and its economic prospects are further challenged with every passing year. For the Palestinians living in Bethlehem and its environs each Christmas has become less of a reason to celebrate than a cause to reflect on the immense tragedy that has befallen this holy city, which is home to one of the oldest Christian communities on Earth.

FACT: The Israeli Occupation has dramatically restricted the Palestinians’ freedom of worship and access to churches in the Holy Land. Following the completion of Israel’s Wall in the northern part of Bethlehem City, Bethlehem and Jerusalem have now been completely separated from one another.

The Governorate and City under Occupation

Neither the Bethlehem Governorate nor the City has been spared from the devastating impact of Israel’s occupation and relentless colonization of Palestinian land. Creating 'facts on the ground’ that render a two-state solution impossible, Israel continues to implement a series of policies that combine elements of occupation, colonization and apartheid to deliberately suffocate and fragment Bethlehem and its environs. These include the ongoing confiscation of Palestinian land for the construction of Israeli settlements and Wall in violation of international law, as well as the imposition of physical and administrative restrictions on freedom of movement for Palestinians, ranging from an ever expanding network of checkpoints and roadblocks to a punitive permit regime that limits where Palestinians can live, move and work.

  • Only 13 percent of the land falling within the Bethlehem governorate is under Palestinian control;

  • In the Bethlehem area alone, 32 physical barriers erected by the Israeli military—including checkpoints, roadblocks, dirt mounds, and gates—prevent freedom of movement and access for Palestinian goods and people1. According to the 2010 International Religious Freedom Report issued by the US State Department, “the government of Israel continued to apply travel restrictions during the reporting period that significantly impeded freedom of access to places of worship in the West Bank and Jerusalem for Muslims and Christians.”

  • There are 17 illegal Israeli settlements and numerous outposts scattered throughout the governorate, housing a combined population of approximately 91,500 settlers; the most prominent of them is the Israeli Foreign Minister, Avigdor Lieberman, who is a resident of the illegal settlement of Noqdim, in the Western Bethlehem area.

  • As part of the Israeli settlement enterprise Israel maintains military control over a number of Palestinian heritage sites, including several on Palestine’s list of world heritage sites to UNESCO. Within the Bethlehem District these include the the Bilal Bin Rabah Mosque/Rachel’s Tomb, the Herodion archaeological site, and the Qumran archaeological site where the Dead Sea scrolls were discovered. The heritage sites in Bethlehem were recently affirmed by UNESCO as belonging to Palestine.

  • Since 1993, Palestinians have been required to obtain Israeli military permission on a case by case basis to enter occupied East Jerusalem for any reason. If granted, such permits stipulate specified and limited crossing times.

  • The unemployment in Bethlehem is approximately 23%, the majority of which is related to sectors targeted by the closure of Bethlehem and its separation from Jerusalem, mainly tourism, trade and agriculture.

Land annexed by Israel in the Bethlehem Governorate

In 1967, Israel annexed approximately 10 km2 of the Northern Bethlehem Governorate in violation of international law. Much of this land was illegally incorporated into the expanded municipal boundaries of East Jerusalem. Israel’s unilateral expansion of East Jerusalem’s municipal boundaries is not recognized by the international community. Many Palestinian towns and villages heavily reliant on agriculture for their economic survival have seen their agricultural lands illegally confiscated by Israel for the construction of settlements, settlement related infrastructure, and the Wall. The Palestinian towns of Beit Sahhur, Bethlehem, Beit Jala,Walaja, Husan, Battir, Wadi Fukin, Jaba, Nahhalin, Artas and al-Khadr have lost 65 percent of their total land area west of the Israeli Wall. For example:

  • Nearly 50 percent of the land traditionally belonging to the village of Beit Jala;

  • Up to 75 percent of the land traditionally belonging to the village of Al Khader;

  • Most of the olive groves traditionally belonging to the village of Beit Sahhur, which have been separated from their Palestinian land owners by the Wall and are accessible only to those who hold rarely issued Israeli military permits. Palestinian farmers who do receive a permit to farm their land must cross through specially designated gates in the Wall that have restricted operating times;

  • In January 2009, Israel issued military orders declaring the land annexed to the Israeli-controlled side of the Wall in the Northern part of the Bethlehem Governorate a “closed zone”2, meaning that Palestinian owners are not allowed to access their land without an Israeli permit;

  • The major settlements of Gilo, Har Gilo, Har Homa, Betar Illit, Efrat, Geva’ot and Bat’Ayin, as well as the expansion of Gi’vat Hadagan and Gi’vat Hatamar in the Efrata settlement, all of which are located in the Bethlehem Governorate, are also slated for expansion. In addition to this, plans have been submitted for a new settlement to be established called Gi’vat Yael in the Al Walaja area.

The Loss of Bethlehem’s Vital Tourism

Over the preceding two decades Bethlehem has become a shadow of its former self. Once a vibrant and open city, Bethlehem has been reduced to a ghetto beset by poverty, immobility and isolation. A walk through the Old Town of Bethlehem exposes one to a myriad of closed storefronts where shopkeepers once sold their wares to residents and tourists alike. The tourists that still enter Bethlehem are literally bused in and out within 2 hours for a specially coordinated visit, spending little to no time in Palestinian shops, restaurants and hotels before returning to Israeli hotels and restaurants to spend much of their time and money. In summary, the benefits of Bethlehem’s potential as a major tourist destination are exploited to serve a thriving Israeli tourism sector. This dire situation is most apparent during the holiday season falling between Christmas and Easter, when Bethlehem should be receiving most of its tourists.

  • Contrary to the bilateral Palestinian-Israeli Interim Agreement (the Oslo Accords), of the 185 Palestinian tour guides licensed with the Palestinian Ministry of Tourism and Antiquities, only 40 have permits to enter Jerusalem, Israel and Israeli-controlled heritage sites in the Palestinian territory. In contrast, there are approximately 7,150 full-time and part-time Israeli tour guides3;

  • Israel continues to promote hotels built in settlements, as well as settlement products to tourists and pilgrims visiting the occupied Palestinian territory, further undermining Palestine’s tourist industry4;

  • According to the Palestinian Ministry of Tourism and Antiquities, tourists and pilgrims need to stay for a minimum of 3-4 nights in the occupied Palestinian territory to effectively contribute to the growth of Palestine’s tourism industry;

  • Israel has implemented a policy whereby tourists visiting Bethlehem, during most of the year must exit the city only from “Checkpoint 300”, which has only one exit and one entry line for buses and cars alike, as opposed to foreigners visiting settlements in the Bethlehem area that are allowed to enter and exit the region through any checkpoint. This has created further delays at the checkpoint for Palestinians, tourists and pilgrims, making a visit to Bethlehem a burden many tourists are not interested in enduring.

  • Despite all these restrictions and the limits imposed by the occupation, the Palestinian Authority has achieved an increase in the number of tourists staying in the occupied territory.

Bilal Bin Rabah Mosque / Rachel’s Tomb

  • Located at the Northern entrance of Bethlehem, the heritage site houses both the Bilal Mosque and Rachel’s Tomb. This is an important heritage site for Christianity, Islam and Judaism. In violation of the Oslo Accords, UNESCO conventions and international law, the Israeli military restricts access to the site to Jews only;

  • The route of the Wall cuts 2 km into the Northern municipal boundaries of Bethlehem to encircle Bilal Mosque / Rachel’s Tomb, severely affecting Palestinian neighborhoods in the vicinity of the site. Seventy out of eighty businesses located in the area have been forced to close;

  • Bilal Mosque / Rachel’s Tomb is adjacent to a predominantly Palestinian Christian neighborhood. Now encircled by the Wall, many residents have been forced to relocate to other areas within Bethlehem or to leave due to the economic and psychological challenges created by the military occupation and the Wall;

Christian festivals affected by Israel’s closure of Bethlehem

  • According to the International Religious Freedom Report of 2010 issued by the US State Department, the construction of the Wall has “significantly impeded Bethlehem residents from reaching the Church of the Holy Sepulcher in Jerusalem and made visits to Christian sites in Bethany and Bethlehem difficult for Palestinians who live on the Jerusalem side of the barrier.”
  • The same report states that the Wall and “checkpoints also impeded the movement of clergy between Jerusalem and West Bank churches and monasteries, as well as the movement of congregations between their homes and places of worship.”
  • The Wall has also affected the Mar Elias Feast traditionally celebrated in August by Palestinian Christians and Muslims from Bethlehem, many of whom can no longer visit the monastery located only four kilometers North of Bethlehem;
  • The second stop of the Christmas Procession with the Patriarchs coming from Bethlehem used to be a few meters after Bilal Mosque / Rachel’s Tomb. Today, due to the presence of the Wall, the Procession no longer waits for the Patriarch at this point.
  • Israeli restrictions on Palestinian movement have also affected the feast of the Virgin Mary, an annual procession that takes place in August, preventing Christians from the Bethlehem area from participating in the procession that ends at the Church of the Assumption in Gethsamene in Jerusalem.

We Palestinians make a special appeal at Christmas time for people around the world to do their part in helping us resist the ongoing closure of Palestine in general and Bethlehem in particular. We ask the world to redouble their efforts this Christmas to make Bethlehem and the rest of the occupied Palestinian territory open to visitors, to reconnect the ancient links between Bethlehem and Jerusalem, to bring peace and justice to Palestine so that we may all share once again in the celebration of the holidays.

  • 1. UN OCHA, Shrinking Space: Urban Contraction and Rural Fragmentation in the Bethlehem Governorate, May 2009.
  • 2. “Closed zones” are tracts of Palestinian land that Israel declares to be closed military areas, and are thus inaccessible to their Palestinian owners and farmers. Since 1967, Israel has declared more than 20% of West Bank land located east of the Wall closed military areas. For more information, refer to Barrier to Peace: The Impact of Israel’s Wall Five Years after the ICJ Ruling, July 2009.
  • 3. Statistics sourced from the Palestinian Ministry of Tourism and Antiquities.
  • 4. In 2004, the International Court of Justice ruled that all Israeli settlements are illegal under international law. For further information, please refer to Barrier to Peace: The Impact of Israel’s Wall Five Years after the ICJ Ruling, July 2009.
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