New Internationalist

‘O little town of Bethlehem’: A world of collective punishment

Banksy Bethlehem [Related Image]
As refugees, the biblical Mary and Joseph would face difficulties going in or out of Bethlehem today. Kodjo Deynoo. Artwork originally by Banksy under a Creative Commons Licence

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.

Comments on ‘O little town of Bethlehem’: A world of collective punishment

Leave your comment


  • Maximum characters allowed: 5000
  • Simple HTML allowed: bold, italic, and links

Registration is quick and easy. Plus you won’t have to re-type the blurry words to comment!
Register | Login

  1. #1 Bob 31 Dec 13

    Not a word about the Jewkilling? Get real. Arabs tried to take all the Land and lost it all in their efforts. Jews won the War for the Land..Arabs lost. Get real.

  2. #3 Carol Jones 01 Jan 14

    Thanks for the interesting article, which focuses on the experience of ordinary men, women and children in Bethlehem. If we are to make any progress towards making the world a happier place, with human rights for all, we cannot afford to think like Bob. Yes, Jewish people have been killed. But two wrongs don't make a right. How would you like it if you were punished and your human rights taken away because of something that people from your country or religion had done? Have some compassion, try to put yourself in their shoes. (That includes thinking of Jewish victims too)

  3. #4 G 02 Jan 14

    Matthew, a very good point indeed. There's something incredibly unnerving in watching the Christmas celebrations across the globe when the very place where it all started is suffering under the monstrous Israeli occupation. In Bethlehem this year activists decorated a Christmas tree with tear gas canisters that had been shot by the occupation army at unarmed civilians over the years. How very fitting.

    And this 'Bob' - typical zionist trolling. No arguments, no facts, just plain and simple racist colonial comment meant to obscure the truth. Get human.

  4. #5 Rajeev B R 19 Dec 15

    Dear Mathew,
    Moving piece! Human or animal suffering at the hands of few handful of autocratics. And it is true violation of rights and denials. Whether, it is Jews, Arabs, Syrians or Blacks, it doesn't matter.
    My prayers for all those who are in pain. This is how I can contribute to Christmas. Lets all join to pray for a better world.

Subscribe to Comments for this articleArticle Comment Feed RSS 2.0

Guidelines: Please be respectful of others when posting your reply.

About the author

Matthew Vickery a New Internationalist contributor

Matthew Vickery is a political activist, former journalist in the West Bank, and freelance writer who specializes in issues regarding the Middle East, human rights, and feminism. He can be contacted via twitter: @mmvickery

Read more by Matthew Vickery

Get our free fortnightly eNews


Videos from visionOntv’s globalviews channel.

Related articles

Popular tags

All tags

New Internationalist Blogs

New Internationalist hosts several different blogs, from the Editor's Blog to the Majority World Blog, the Gaza Blog to the Books Blog

New Internationalist Blogs