A Bleak Christmas in Bethlehem Evokes the Disaster That Befell It

The illusion of normalcy in Jesus' birthplace is shattered at the sight of the wall that chokes the city and the Jewish settlement astride the nearby hill.

Gideon Levy
Alex Levac
People outside the Church of the Nativity in Bethlehem, December 2016.
People outside the Church of the Nativity in Bethlehem, December 2016.Credit: Alex Levac
Gideon Levy
Alex Levac

As 2016 draws to a close, Bethlehem is a sad city. The melancholy is pervasive – in the shuttered souvenir shops, in the stores that remain open but are empty, in the guest-less hotels, in the downcast faces of local people. It’s true that in the afternoon the produce market is bustling and traffic is backed up. Also the city has been festively decorated for Christmas, its colorful lights glittering at night. But not much else is happening here.

The local police directing traffic near the market create an illusion of normality and a semblance of sovereignty. But any illusions are shattered at the sight both of the wall that chokes the city at the end of its main street, and of the Har Homa settlement – a Jewish suburb forced upon the city – astride the nearby hill.

Bethlehem is occupied and suffocated. This is especially noticeable during this Christmas season, where one feels the contrast between what this beautiful town, Jesus’ birthplace, could be and what it has been reduced to. Next year will mark the jubilee of the disaster that befell it.

Possibly the saddest place in town is the place where we stayed last weekend: the Jacir Palace Hotel, formerly the Intercontinental, the ostensible crown jewel of all of Bethlehem’s hotels. A stone compound with a fine, ornamental façade, this expansive hotel has a large swimming pool, plenty of public spaces, ballrooms and conference halls, suites and executive rooms, cafes, bars and restaurants – and it’s one big wasteland. Long, mute corridors that lead nowhere, spaces long unused. A five-star hotel with more than 200 rooms, deteriorating.

There’s nothing more disheartening than an empty hotel. There were only three other guests at the Jacir Palace besides us: a Palestinian from Ramallah and an Arab couple from Haifa. The breakfast buffet was abundant, but the tables around it were deserted. A Nazareth-based tourism agency this week offered three nights, breakfast included, at the hotel during Christmas week for 1,050 shekels ($275) per person, but it’s unlikely to fill up even at that price.

It’s easy to imagine what this hotel could look like: full of tourists from every corner of the world, businessmen, wealthy pilgrims and Israelis, too, on the weekends.

Yet bad as it is, it’s not the worst of times. Nearly fifteen years ago, in March 2002, the Israeli army invaded the city as part of Operation Defensive Shield. The Israel Defense Forces took over the hotel for five months and quartered its soldiers there. That was probably the last time the hotel had no vacancies. Since then, the premises have been renovated and the damage caused by the IDF repaired, but now there’s not a soul to be seen.

Outside, Yasser Arafat Street becomes Hebron Road, the city’s main artery, which traverses the city from north to south. To the left of the hotel, Rachel’s Tomb is hidden by the separation wall, scorched and filthy from angry demonstrations that have been held there.

A member of Palestinian National Security Forces stands guard during a Christmas tree lighting ceremony outside the Church of the Nativity in the West Bank town of Bethlehem December 3, 2016. Credit: Mussa Qawasma, Reuters

To the north is Al-Aida, one of the smallest and grimmest of the West Bank’s refugee camps. A number of its children and teens have been killed or wounded in recent years, when they provoked the soldiers in the fortified tower that protects Rachel’s Tomb and looms over their homes. In the past few months, between the army pillbox and the huge metal “key of the return” installation erected above the camp’s entry gate – along the fence of the local cemetery – large quantities of tear gas have been released, much live ammunition fired and no little blood spilled. And all this just a few hundred meters from the Jacir Palace Hotel, where utter silence reigned on a December weekend.

I was here to participate in an international conference of Kairos Palestine, a Christian Palestinian movement that focuses on religious components of the struggle against the occupation. The theme of this year’s annual conference was “Faith, Sumud [Steadfastness] and Creative Resistance.” The two-day event was moderated by the former minister for Jerusalem affairs in the Palestinian Authority, Hind Khoury; Palestinian clergyman Rev. Mitri Raheb delivered the keynote address. One guest didn’t arrive: Dr. Isabel Phiri, a senior theologian from the World Council of Churches, who was denied entry to Israel a few days earlier, on the grounds that the WCC supports the international boycott of Israel.

The WCC general secretary, Rev. Olav Fykse Tveit, a Norwegian, who was allowed into Israel, also spoke at the event. The affront to his colleague who was turned away, and the anger felt by his organization were palpable in his remarks, though he was restrained, as befits a Nordic clergyman. WCC activists in their brown vests are a familiar sight in Bethlehem, standing from dawn until after dusk at checkpoint 300 to observe the ongoing situation there. This is the large, harsh crossing point where thousands of workers who have permits to enter Israel are humiliated every morning. The observers report to their churches on abuses they witness: that’s their sin.

But the Kairos Palestine conference also exuded a degree of optimism and hope, as one might expect from Christian clergy. An orchestra and singers performed moving religious hymns in Arabic after rendering “Biladi, Biladi,” the Palestinian national anthem. One of the singers was also absent. He had been arrested on the way to Bethlehem at what is called the “container checkpoint” that divides the southern section of the West Bank from the northern section. “His voice remained at the checkpoint,” the moderator poeticized.

Christian clergymen in robes and miters packed the first rows; notable among them was the former Latin Patriarch of Jerusalem, the aged and venerable Michel Sabbah.

In the morning I go for a walk on sun-drenched Arafat Street. I was on this street in March 2002, at the height of the prolonged curfew the IDF imposed on the city. At that time, I wrote: “This is how the city that was (re)occupied by the IDF looks: The main streets are deserted and strewn with wreckage. Mighty tanks sit at all the intersections. All doors, windows and gates are shuttered. The streets are scarred by the treads of the tanks. Cars that were struck by the tanks are left smashed by the side of the road. Telephone booths, electric poles and traffic islands – all destroyed. Stones, bricks, household objects, burnt tires, rusted boilers and old electric appliances lie in the road, perhaps the remnants of some feeble resistance effort … The deathly silence that has descended on the city is broken intermittently by exchanges of gunfire. Every so often, a bigger boom rattles the area … The sight was reminiscent of Sarajevo in 1993.”

A month later, I returned to the city, to find the situation unchanged, and wrote: “At the corner of St. Paul VI Street and the market lane I saw the achievements of this war… I’ve been on curfewed streets before, but never have I been in a silence like this. No human voice crossed the threshold of the houses, deathly silence, ghostly streets. The city of the nativity has become the city of death.”

Since then, of course, things have changed. There are no Israeli soldiers, no tanks, only the wall, Har Homa – literally, “the hill of the wall” – and the depression. Friday morning, the day of rest for Muslims, and the atmosphere in the city’s streets evokes a Shabbat morning in Israel. An aura of tranquility. Everything makes you feel you’re abroad – hard to believe it’s just a little more than an hour’s drive from Tel Aviv. The use of the shekel is a cogent reminder of who’s in charge here, who’s sovereign. A tourist from Venezuela pays a peddler from Deheishe refugee camp with a bill bearing the likeness of the poet Shaul Tchernikhovsky. Could anything be wackier?

It’s these foreign scenes, on a lovely Friday morning, that give rise powerfully to the trenchant questions: What is Israel doing here? By what right does it continue to manage the lives of the people here? By what right?

Manger Square, outside the Church of the Nativity, is buzzing with tourists. Groups of pilgrims from Ghana and the Philippines, from Russia and Colombia stream into the church, which is undergoing restoration. Very few pilgrims stay overnight in Bethlehem, to the chagrin of the city’s hoteliers, merchants and street peddlers. From the trunk of an old Opel, with a generator on its roof, a man prepares sweet, pink, cotton candy. He rotates the stick and prepares more and more bundles, wrapped in plastic, which he hangs on the car. It’s not likely that so many of these sweets will be sold today in this sad city.

In the Afteem Al-Yafawi Restaurant, a touristy place that declares proudly that it was founded in 1948, a highly charged year, a meal of hummus, salad, falafel and a can of Sprite will cost you an unbelievable 15 shekels ($3.95). And here’s the Peace Center Restaurant, a souvenir of the days of delusions that are receding rapidly into the past, becoming faded memories.