Yesterday, going through my Facebook feed, a truly distressing story thundered out at me. It was a video posted by Jewish Voice for Peace showing Palestinian families trying to save their homes from being demolished in al-Walaja (west of the Occupied West Bank city of Bethlehem). Palestinians organized sit-ins and stood on roofs and stayed in their homes. They were met with terrible violence and injury by Israeli forces.
The homes are being demolished under the pretext of not having permits which are virtually impossible for Palestinians to obtain.
Videos like this underline one’s impotence in changing the pace/direction of history in distant lands but it did remind me to stop procrastinating on my blog about Bethlehem.
Ten ks south of Jerusalem, Bethlehem historically reflects the same crossroads of history as Jerusalem and much of the Middle East. First mention of Bethlehem was by the Canaanites way back. Since the birth of Christ has been has been conquered and ruled by:
- Romans (132-135),
- Muslims (c.637);
- Crusaders (1096-1099);
- the Sultan of Egypt (1187) and again from 1813-1841
- the Ottomans (1500′s) who ruled for 400 years.
- the British who captured the city in the First World War and controlled it until 1948.
Jordan annexed Bethlehem in 1948 after the declaration of the State of Israel and the Arab -Israeli war and remained in power until the Six Day War in 1967. During the Six Day War Israel pushed back the Jordanian border and took control of Bethlehem and the rest of the West Bank. My earlier blog Israel 101 talks about the West Bank.
There are 42 Jewish settlements surrounding Bethlehem. Between the settlements and the town there is a settler ring road; and between that and Bethlehem there’s a wall. It is an open prison with approved access and egress for Palestinian people. There’s no other way to describe it
We had chosen a tour into the West Bank at Bethlehem with Green Olive Tours and passed through the Israeli built Separation Wall to meet our Palestinian guide inside the Occupied Territories at the edge of Bethlehem, a town of some 30,000 people with a strong (16%) representation of Palestinian Christians.
The wall surrounds Bethlehem on 3 sides; any Palestinians who wishes to enter Israeli must pass through a checkpoint. We were told that at the beginning of Ramadan when Muslims wanted to visit the Al Aqsa Mosque next to the Dome on the Rock, 40,000 people queued at this checkpoint. Some Palestinians who work in Israel need to leave home at 4am to get to work by 8am taking account of the procedures at the checkpoint. Such is the Jewish paranoia about “young radicals”, that to obtain a work permit to leave Bethlehem through a checkpoint, a Palestinian man has to be over 35, and married with children.
Close to the wall is the famous Banksy Walled Off Hotel, a fine gesture from an artist with a conscience. A few of his works adorn the wall itself.
After a walk along the wall we visited the less than 0.071 sq. k Aida Refugee Camp, home to some 5000 displaced people with an unemployment rate of 43%. This camp is one of 19 in the West Bank (and of 59 in total). It opened in 1950 after the 1948 establishment of the State of Israel and remains under the control of UNRWA. The unrwa.org website is a great source of information.
The Aida camp has no health clinics although UNWRA provides medical assistance in Bethlehem itself.
The following details are from the UNWRA website: After a recent agreement with the Palestinian Water Authority, water is now provided to Aida camp for two days every other week, during which residents replenish their water tanks. However, the existing water network has not been upgraded since 1972 and the camp experiences constant water leakages. During the summer months, when water shortages are more frequent, camp residents are forced to purchase water.
The camp’s electricity supply is weak and overloaded. Power supply expansion and the sharing of connections is often unsupervised. Only a limited area of Aida camp is covered by a storm water drainage
Close by the camp are Har Homa and Gilo, two large Israeli settlements that are illegal under international law but their smart modern architecture can be seen from a distance. (See photo above of the settlement outside the wall) . What a contrast.
Aida is the location of an NGO, the Al Rowwad Cultural and Theatre Training Centre and a Youth Centre both of which practice cultural and creative arts as ways of maintaining traditional culture and of peaceful resistance. We attended a talk by a splendid young Palestinian woman who works at the centre and who outlined some of the programs. Children are taught aspects of their culture; theatrical and dance performances are held.
A constant military presence (the camp can be raided up to twice a week) and the camps’ proximity to the main checkpoint between Jerusalem and Bethlehem, have made the it vulnerable to a number of protection concerns. Despite all this effort to withstand the poverty and oppression faced by those rendered homeless by Israeli occupation, injury is added to insult when clashes involve the Cultural Centre and many residents including children. An increasing number are reportedly being injured as a result of excessive force by the Israeli Security Force. Refugees in Aida Camp have predominantly practiced non-violent opposition to the Occupation.
Recently the USA has put the Palestinian Authority on notice that its aid funding to UNWRA will cease. It is difficult to imagine the impact this will have on all the camps. It seems to me that the American President is almost challenging the Palestinians to revolt.
One could not go to Bethlehem without visiting the iconic Basilica of the Nativity built in the first instance by Helena Mother of Constantine in 327 to commemorate the alleged place of birth of Jesus 2000+ years ago a stable (or a cave) . After it was sacked the church was rebuilt by Justinian 1 in the 600s.
This is one of only 2 stops behind the wall for most Christian tourists to Israel since their buses stop only at the Church and at an Israeli souvenir shop. Sad they miss so much.
The 5thcentury church compound is off Manger Square at the end of a street of modern and old buildings, some of which are 500 years old
The main Basilica of the Nativity is maintained by the Greek Orthodox Church. It is designed like a typical Roman basilica, with five aisles formed by Corinthian columns, with an apse in the eastern end containing the sanctuary.
The basilica is entered through a very low door called the “Door of Humility.”
Armenians and Catholics also have chapels inside the church precinct. The adjoining Church of St. Catherine is a Roman Catholic church dedicated to St. Catherine of Alexandria and is built in a more modern Gothic Revival style.
The grotto where, mythology has it, the birth of Christ occurred, is below the Church of the Nativity and can be reached through a series of caves below the churches. In 2012. the Basilica became the first Palestinian site to be listed as a World Heritage site. A silver star marks the spot!!
Our last stop was the Orthodox monastery founded by Sabbas the Sanctified from Anatolia believed to be 483 CE. Today, about 20 monks live in the complex which spills down a desert valley side. It is thought to be one of the oldest inhabited monasteries in the world and still maintains many of its ancient traditions. One in particular is the restriction on women entering the main compound. The only building that women can enter is the Women’s Tower, near the main entrance. Our guide implied some darker depths to the Monastery.
While we were there a sad young boy with a donkey lingered around us hoping someone would pay for a photo or perhaps a desert ride. Now weeks later, I think of the reminiscent images, Joseph bringing the pregnant Mary to Bethlehem on the back of a donkey or Jesus riding a donkey triumphantly into Jerusalem on what is now known as Palm Sunday.