Bethlehem strained under occupation

After 60 years of Israeli control, Arab Christians find their prospects limited.

    A golden crucifix reflects the Church of the Nativity, where according to tradition Jesus was born, during the traditional Christmas Eve procession in Manger Square in Bethlehem [GETTY]

    As groups of pilgrims and tourists slowly walk down the old stone steps leading to the birthplace of Jesus Christ, Issa Rizikalla sits at the entrance of the Grotto of the Nativity Church of Bethlehem.

    Originally Greek Orthodox, the 28-year-old Palestinian converted to the Armenian Apostolic Church for his Armenian fiancé, who he first met in Manger Square, and now oversees the Armenian altars in the Nativity Church.

    For Rizikalla, getting this job he says he was a blessing.

    "It is very hard to find a good job here that pays you well ... marriage is not cheap," Rizikalla told Al Jazeera.

    Occupation's forceful hand

    Tourists and pilgrims entering the Church of
    Nativity in Bethlehem [Linda Haddad]

    Rizikalla, who is from the town of Beit Jallah in Bethlehem, considers himself luckier than most Arab Christians living in the city under Israeli control. 

    He says other Christian Palestinians struggle to find jobs which pay well in Israeli-occupied territories.

    Unemployment, a dwindling tourism industry due to violence and life under occupation have seen many Christians choose to leave their ancestral homes in Palestine.

    In 1948, when Bethelehem was part of British-mandated Palestine, Arab Christians accounted for 75 per cent of the city's population.

    According to Andrea Pacini, an author on the socio-political and community dynamics of Arab Christians in Jordan, Israel and Palestine, Christians comprised just 33 per cent of Bethlehem's population in 1998.

    Today, 75,609 Christian Palestinians live in all the occupied Palestinian territories, making up two per cent of the population, according to the latest population estimates from the Palestinian Central Bureau of statistics.

    The Bureau says Christians accounted for 20 per cent of the Palestinian population in 1948.

    Christian exodus

    Batarseh: The stress of occupation is the main
    reason for the "Christian Exodus" [Haddad]

    Bethlehem's mayor explains that the worsening conditions under the Israeli occupation are the main reasons for the "Christian exodus".

    Victor Batarseh says that the Christians are leaving because of the stress of occupation, the lack of jobs and worsening economic situation in the territories, the constant fear of war and military incursions and the continuous building of roadblocks and the wall.

    "It is much easier for a Christian Palestinian to get a visa to a Western country than a Muslim Palestinian," Batarseh said.

    "So because it is easier they are able to leave."

    A Zogby International poll in 2006 interviewing 1,000 Palestinians from Bethlehem showed that 79 per cent of respondents believed the difficulties of living under occupation are the reason for Christians leaving Palestine.

    But Rizikalla believes that the difficulties of living under Israeli occupation were made even more difficult when Hamas was elected into power.

    "We all believe that we are Palestinians first, but when we have Islamic groups like Hamas in Gaza taking control, the rest of the world thinks Palestinian liberation is an Islamic cause," Issa said.

    "This is wrong. We are all Palestinians first."

    Batarseh agrees that Palestinian nationalism is shared by Christians and Muslims in the oocupied territories. "While I do not back the Hamas-led government in Gaza, our movement is a nationalistic one and it will always be about freeing Palestine of this horrendous Israeli occupation."

    Tourism improves slightly

    Christian shop owners say Israelis are diverting
    commerce away from them [Haddad]
    Meanwhile, despite the emigration of Christian families from the city, tourism in Bethlehem has improved compared to a few years ago, according to the Bethlehem Municipality.

    According to the Palestinian ministry of interior, more than 80,000 tourists visited Jesus' birth place in March, and nearly 100,000 tourists visited last month.

    Sharon Cickburn, a retired teacher from Canada, says she and her husband finally found the time to travel, and made sure to visit Bethlehem.

    "We came with a tour group and if we like the sights we are shown then we will definitely come back more often," she said.

    While the numbers of tourists have increased over the last few months in the town of Bethlehem, store clerks selling Christian memorabilia near Manger square say business has not been great.

    The store clerks, who are mainly Christian, do not blame politics for the lack of business, but instead they blame tour groups hired by Israeli travel agencies who guide their groups to purchase from Israeli or Jewish-owned businesses in Jerusalem instead.

    Continuing the tradition


    Since Hamas came to power it has not reversed three tenets instituted by Yasser Arafat, the late Palestinian President:

    - Mayor of Bethlehem is always a Christian

    - Minister of Tourism is a Christian

    - The Palestinian Authority head attends Christmas mass (Arafat started this tradition and it was adopted by Mahmoud Abbas, the current president)

    Batarseh said that while a good number of tour groups come through Israeli travel agencies, a larger number of tour groups book their travels through travel agencies from other countries, like Italy, Poland, and Russia – countries with big Catholic communities.

    "But we need to remember, Muslims and Christians live among each other [in Bethlehem] and other Palestinian areas peacefully ... and not one of our guests was ever treated in way that shows they are not welcome to Bethlehem," he said.

    But one store owner, who wished to remain anonymous, said the majority of tour groups she sees come from Israeli travel agencies.

    "The Israelis now not only occupy us, but they run things ... they want to take our business," she told Al Jazeera.

    "Can anyone blame us for wanting to leave?"

    Rizikalla says he has no plans to leave and believes that the Israeli occupation and the politics of it have become new facets of life for the Palestinians.

    "The occupation is part of our life whether we like it or not, so we must find the beauty in the simple things life has to offer us," he said.

    "For me, working where Jesus was born is my way of handling the occupation."

    SOURCE: Al Jazeera


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