Saturday, December 6, 2014

Bethlehem Revisited

“Oh Little Town of Bethlehem, how still we see thee lie…”  It permeates the airwaves this time of year – on the radio, in the malls and, of course, in church, where we visualize that “little town” and pray for “peace on earth, and good will to all.

But, if you are getting your news from anywhere other than the “mainstream media,” you know that “little town” hasn’t been still for a quite a while now.  Bethlehem – and, indeed, all of the town and cities in Palestine – has become a focal point for acts of violence and punishing pogroms that, far from bringing “peace on earth,” are moving the Holy Land farther and farther from the vision that the Christmas story suggests.

Church of the Nativity (Diana Fisher photo)
My most recent visit to Bethlehem was in October.  I stayed in an apartment just down the hill from Manger Square – and even attended a Sunday service in the Church of the Nativity. But even in that beautiful setting, the postcard view is marred by the bullet holes in the exterior walls – left by Israeli soldiers who killed eight Palestinians and injured dozens more who had taken sanctuary there during the Second Intifada.

Moving away from Manger Square, the last (and only) vestige of tourism left in a Bethlehem that is now virtually surrounded by the “Security” Wall, one sees few remnants of the once-vital city that remains the unofficial “Christian Capital” of the West Bank (by law, Bethlehem’s mayor must be a Christian).  The market, once thronged with tourists has been decimated, leaving the remaining merchants to compete vigorously for the few remaining visitors who dare to defy warnings that Bethlehem is a “dangerous” place to visit.  For the most part, tourists in their big busses come only to see the church – and leave without seeing anything else or talking to a single Palestinian!

Our next stop was at the infamous Checkpoint 300, the closest checkpoint between Bethlehem and Jerusalem.  This is the point through which Palestinian workers must pass to get to their jobs, the ill or injured must pass to reach medical treatment and worshippers must pass to reach mosques and churches.  And that, of course, assumes that they are fortunate enough to have the proper permit!  Up to 8,000 people will pass through this checkpoint on a busy work day, under conditions that the average tourist will never see – and cannot imagine!
Aida Camp (Diana Fisher photo)

A visit to the Aida Refugee camp, within walking distance of Checkpoint 300, gave us the opportunity to meet third-generation refugees of the 1948 Nakba, who live in tiny cement block houses and send their children to UN-supported schools.  “No room at the inn” for these folks!

Life in the villages surrounding Bethlehem isn’t much better.  In Wadi Fouquin, just a short drive away, the village has been the recipient of sewage dumping from the neighboring settlement for several years.  Worse, the residents of the settlement, ultra-Orthodox “religious” settlers, use the village’s fresh water ponds for their “purification” baths.  And Israel recently announced that it is “annexing” another 1,000 acres of Wadi Fouquin’s agricultural land for settlement expansion!  Still, we spent a pleasant morning picking olives there – and were told that several villagers were traveling to the US to testify before Congress in November.

Olive picking in Wadi Fouquin
At Cremesan, a Roman Catholic monastery, school and winery, the path of the Wall will divide the vineyards from the winery – and the students from the school.  Weekly prayer vigils give voice to those who would object – but the objections fall on deaf ears.

Perhaps, though, the lyrics to the song aren’t as antiquated as they may first appear.  Remember, the closing line: “The hopes and fears of all the years are met in thee tonight…”

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