Fourteen years ago, I went with then-President Bill Clinton to Bethlehem where he participated in the lighting of the tree in Manger Square. As we looked out from the Square we could see Jerusalem and, in between, a green hill which was called Jabal Abul Ghnaim. The Israelis had announced plans to construct a settlement on that land, and despite Clinton's stern protests, the hill was already scarred by bulldozer tracks preparing the way for what was to come.
Today, Jabal Abul Ghnaim, formerly a part of Bethlehem, is called Har Homa, an Israeli settlement, housing over 17,000. It and several other Israeli colonies (19 in total) and a nearly 30 foot concrete wall now separate Bethlehem from Jerusalem and are strangling the little town, inhibiting its growth and the ability of its residents to conduct normal commerce.
Announcements this week that Israel will build another 6,000 homes in these settlements and construct two new colonies in the area around Jerusalem have raised grave concerns in Bethlehem. These developments, when completed, will completely cut Bethlehem off, not only from the Holy City, but from the northern part of the West Bank. This will cause irreparable damage to the Palestinian inhabitants of the land and to the future of peace. It is, one might say, a cruel and terrible way to commemorate the Christmas season.
The Obama Administration has, of course, protested, calling these Israeli actions part of a "pattern of provocation". But we've seen this play out before. Israel will pocket the protests, as they have done for decades, and continue to build. Unless the international protests are followed by some decisive action, by next Christmas these settlements will be completed, destroying lives and the hopes and the aspirations of so many who yearn for freedom and justice.
It is a tragic irony that when we, in America, sing this Christmas of "the little town of Bethlehem," what comes to mind is not the living, breathing, suffering, and real Palestinian city, rather it is a Bethlehem that exists only in our imagination. A few years back we conducted some polling here in the U.S. in an effort to understand what Americans understood about Bethlehem. Most, it turned out didn't know where it was. Six in ten thought it was an Israeli city, populated by Jews. Only one in seven knew it was a mixed Palestinian Christian/Muslim town. Most Americans believed that Bethlehem should be protected by UNESCO as a World Heritage Site, but there was no public outcry when Congress cut UNESCO funds last year as punishment for the Palestinian Authority gaining membership in that world body so that they could push, over Israeli objections, for this recognition for Bethlehem.
Americans also don't know that the city is literally corralled by a huge and oppressive concrete wall or that most of its surrounding lands have been stolen and used for Jewish-only housing projects. And they don't know that there are in Bethlehem today hundreds of unemployed skilled craftsmen who were once world-renowned for their olive wood carvings and mother of pearl artistic creations. They have been idled by occupation, the blockade of their city, and their lack of access to export markets.
The lack of understanding in the West for the plight of Bethlehem and our silence in the face of its suffering is a metaphor for the entire Palestinian situation. In our mind's eye we can clearly see Israel and our imagined Bethlehem, but the Palestinian people of today do not exist. They remain an abstraction or simply a problem to be solved on Israel's terms.
As I have noted before, it might a good thing for all of us to resolve this Christmas to come to know the real Bethlehem and the real people of that town -- Christians, who have been living there since the time of Jesus, and Muslims -- the lives they live and what might be done to ease their burdens. If we do, we might be able to join the heavenly hosts whom we are told greeted the birth of Jesus singing "peace on earth, good will to men" and help bring some of each to the people of the land of Palestine.