Israel’s colonial strangling of Bethlehem

Bethlehem has been “isolated and fragmented” in a way that would devastate any town or community the world over.

Over decades of Israeli military rule, more and more land around Bethlehem has been annexed, expropriated and colonised, with 19 illegal settlements now in the governorate [AFP]

At the main checkpoint to enter Bethlehem there is a large sign placed on the Separation Wall by Israel’s ministry of tourism which says “Peace be with you”. An appropriate symbol for Israel’s colonial strangling of the “little town”, this propaganda for pilgrims is a crude microcosm of Israel’s habit of talking “co-existence” while pursuing apartheid. 

Over decades of Israeli military rule, more and more land around the city has been annexed, expropriated and colonised, with 19 illegal settlements now in the governorate. Eighty percent of an estimated 22 square kilometre of land confiscated from the north of the Bethlehem region was annexed to the Jerusalem municipality in order to expand settlements (see this briefing). 

Beit Sahour, home of the Shepherds’ Fields where it is said the angels announced the birth of Jesus, has been hit hard by Israel’s colonial regime, losing 17 percent of its land to the expansion of Jerusalem’s municipal boundaries. The Wall loops around 10 percent of the Bethlehem region’s land, and the UN estimates that only 13 percent of the governorate is available for Palestinian use. In and around the city, there are over 30 physical barriers to Palestinian freedom of movement imposed by the Israeli military. Bethlehem has been isolated and fragmented in a way that would devastate any town or community the world over. 

Palestinians from Bethlehem, of course, must apply for permits to enter occupied (and illegally annexed) East Jerusalem – while the Israeli citizens living in the neighbouring Jewish settlements come and go as they please. The two cities are increasingly disconnected, with plans for Israeli colonies like Givat Hamatos intended to “complete the ring that will cut off East Jerusalem completely from the southern West Bank”. 

Bethlehem continues to suffer from severe challenges when it comes to developing its tourism-dependent economy. For example, Palestinian tour guides have not been able to enter Israel since 2000, while Israeli tour operators shape itineraries in a way that favours hotels in Jerusalem and means visitors simply dash in and out of Bethlehem. The current unemployment rate stands at around 21 percent, the highest of any West Bank region. 

Keen to distract from the impact of years of Israeli colonial control, Israel’s defenders try to make out that the city’s Christian Palestinians are the target of a “jihad” by their Muslim neighbours – and that “persecution” is the reason for the Christian population’s shrinking numbers. Yet surveys – see here, here and here – consistently bear out the logical conclusion that the main emigration “push” factors are economic, political and rooted in Israeli occupation. A 2006 poll of Bethlehem residents found that 78 percent of Christian respondents cited “Israeli aggression and occupation” as “the main cause of emigration”. 

Instead of just an annual reminder of the city’s plight, there are ways that people around the world, including or perhaps especially churches, can support Bethlehem and the rights of its inhabitants. One way is to go there and stay there, building into a group itinerary time to sleep in the city’s hotels and visit the various historical and religious sites, restaurants and artisan shops. 

You can also help Bethlehem by listening to the voices like those of Kairos Palestine, who recently released a  statement to mark three years since the Christian Palestinian call for action from churches worldwide. They ask supporters of human rights to heed the call for boycott, divestment and sanctions (BDS) until Israel complies with international law and all the Palestinian people’s rights are realised. 

At a time of year when platitudes and wishes for peace are common place, the words of Kairos remind us that the little town of Bethlehem, like the rest of Palestine, needs a lot more than sentiment: 

The aim of BDS is not revenge but rather achieving justice, equality and ending the injustice imposed on the Palestinian people. Edward Said said: “Either equality or nothing.” 

Ben White is a freelance journalist, writer and activist, specialising in Palestine/Israel. He is a graduate of Cambridge University.