Bethlehem Christians Unable to Celebrate Christmas as they Fight for their Existence

BETHLEHEM, December 21, 2013 (WAFA) – As Christians from all over the world get ready to celebrate Christmas in Bethlehem, the cradle of Christianity, Palestinian Christian residents of this holy city are busy fighting to protect their land and their homes from Israeli takeover.

Since its occupation in 1967 by Israel, the landscape of the biblical city of Bethlehem and its area towns such as Beit Jala to west and Beit Sahour to the east, all Christian towns, has changed dramatically.

Bethlehem is now surrounded by not only an 8-meter high concrete wall with barbed wire on top that separates it from its historical northern neighbor, Jerusalem, and most of its fertile agricultural land, but also by a series of  Jewish only settlements that have suffocated the city and expropriated almost all its land.

The segregation wall Israel has build since 2003 has separated Bethlehem from about 12 percent of its land. Residents of Bethlehem cannot access their land in the area behind the wall without a special Israeli army permit, which is rarely given.

The Cremisan monastery to the northwest of Beit Jala found itself gradually losing most of its land to that wall, and so is the Salesian school and monastery, which is waiting for an Israeli court to decide if the wall is going to cut right through church land or not. Under the pretext of security, the court is expected to rule in favor of the wall.

In addition to the 12 percent taken from the Bethlehem district to the segregation wall, almost 76 percent were expropriated over the years to build four major town-like settlements – Har Homa, Gilo, Har Gilo and Givate Hamatos, not mentioning the cluster of smaller settlements built on land taken from Bethlehem-area villages, including the Gush Eztion settlement block that is gradually growing to reach Jerusalem.

As a result, what is left for Bethlehem today is a mere 13 percent of its original area, and even that much Israel is trying to reduce with checkpoints, army installations and major highways to facilitate movement of Jewish settlers to Jerusalem and maybe in the future to the Dead Sea.

An area of Beit Sahour known as Oush Ghurab (Crow’s Nest) is under threat of takeover as settlers from a movement known as Women in Green are trying to build a new settlement in that area, a former military outpost, claiming the settlement would prevent Arab expansion near a road settlers use to connect them to two nearby settlements, Tekoa and Nikodim, where Israeli Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman lives.

George Shoumali, whose house is close to that area, said that efforts to salvage that land, the only area left for Beit Jala to expand, are facing many obstacles.

The municipality built a recreational park there and opened a concrete access road to it to protect it. But not more construction is allowed since that area is considered Area C, according to the Oslo classifications of West Bank land, which means it is under full Israeli military control.

Oush Ghurab remains today scarcely populated as an army tower and small post stand on that land as the Israeli military government is contemplating whether or not to allow a settlement to be built there.

Standing on what was once an area of Beit Jala and where Mar Elias monastery is located on the northern outskirts of the town, Father Ibrahim Shoumali, a resident of Beit Jala, said the area of his town has until recently extended all the way to where the monastery is located.

“For over 160 years, the procession of the Latin patriarch coming from Jerusalem on Christmas Eve would stop at Mar Elias on its way to the Church of Nativity in Bethlehem,” he said.

The tradition was that the mayor of Beit Jala and other town officials and town residents would greet the patriarch there and join the procession to Bethlehem.

But today, after Israel had cut off that part of Beit Jala and annexed it to Jerusalem and after building the wall that separated it from the town center, none of the Beit Jala residents are able to welcome the patriarch at Mar Elias anymore.

Most of that area, all church-owned land, was transformed into major settlements, including Har Homa and Gilo.

According to Suhail Khalilieh, from the Bethlehem-based Applied Research Institute – Jerusalem (ARIJ), because only 13 percent of the area of Bethlehem, Beit Jala and Beit Sahour is left for these towns to expand, construction has been limited horizontally while it increased vertically causing over crowdedness and many social problems.

Many of the Bethlehem area towns’ Christian residents opted to immigrate to Western countries to avoid the hardships of the new realities created by the Israeli occupation and expropriation of their lands.

Standing at Herodion tourist site overlooking the entire Bethlehem district and which Israel claims as an Israeli park and part of its national heritage sites managed by the Israel Parks Authority and protected by an army post, Khalilieh pointed at a vast of area of land that Palestinians are not allowed to access.

“While we look at his vast empty land that belongs to the Bethlehem district,” he said, “yet we are not allowed to build on it.”

He expressed fear that if Israel goes ahead with plans to build a major highway through that land to link the area settlements to the Dead Sea, “it will cut up the West Bank into pieces” and destroy any chance of having a contiguous Palestinian state.