It is a city that many people know very little about in a modern context, yet as Christmas Day approaches, pictures of this seemingly idyllic, peaceful place adorn many mantelpieces.
Modern day Bethlehem is surrounded by a concrete wall which at its highest point is over eight metres tall – twice the height of the Berlin Wall – with three crowded refugee camps within it. Where Christmas all over the world is an opportunity to visit family, this is not guaranteed for those who live in Bethlehem at any point throughout the year. Permission must be sought from the Israeli authorities, even if individuals wish to travel just six kilometres to visit friends or family in Jerusalem.
Such permission is hard to come by, if not impossible. Life here is not one full of optimism. Rather, it is a world of collective punishment, implemented merely for being born in the ‘wrong’ place.. A geographical lottery, which denies simple freedoms and rights to many. Indeed the bullet holes seen dotted on buildings around the city are a reminder that the limbo of occupation at the hands of one of the world’s most sophisticated militaries can be fragile. Occupation here and elsewhere in the occupied Palestinian territories is crippling, yet it is largely ignored by the wider world.
The freedom of movement restrictions in Bethlehem, implemented on Palestinians in general, are not just draconian but fundamentally violate human right conventions. A person should not be discriminated against on the basis of their nationality, religion, ethnicity or geographical birthplace; this is a fundamental right.
Yet, in Bethlehem at every turn, there is a story of violated human rights, of the crushing hand of military occupation. The mother whose son has been jailed without trial under the administrative detention law (a law used by the Israeli government to jail Palestinians without charge for two years at a time without trial, an incarceration which can be renewed at the end of the period). The two young children who saw their mother killed as she went to open her door in Aida refugee camp and was blown up by an impatient Israeli military unit who preferred to continue their patrol through the overcrowded homes of refugees rather than the road going through the camp. The olive farmer who has to watch his family’s entire livelihood being dug up for a Wall that happens to expropriate half his village’s land as well. The young couple who watched their new-born child die because they were refused permission through a military checkpoint to get to a hospital.
These stories are not made-up, they are real, and they are not isolated; they have all occurred in and around Bethlehem in recent years.
For those of us who celebrate Christmas and support people living under oppression, we must start to use the festival as a platform to talk about the plight of Bethlehem and the wider Palestinian population.
After all, to decorate our homes this month with pictures of Bethlehem without showing awareness of its reality is an injustice to Palestinians and their suffering, as well as a rejection of their fundamental right to enjoy the same freedoms and security that we will enjoy, and may take for granted, this Christmas.