Over 2000 years ago, in a little town called Bethlehem, a child was born. He would come to shape the entire course of world history. The historic and holy cities of Bethlehem and Jerusalem both played an important role in Jesus’ life.
Today, these two cities are still as intrinsically linked as they were two millennia ago. Palestinian families and friends live in close proximity across the area; the corridor running from Bethlehem through occupied East Jerusalem up to Ramallah is responsible for generating 35% of Palestine’s national economic output, and includes the most important pilgrimage destinations in Palestine.
However, the two cities are being systematically severed from one another in a very unnatural, destructive and tragic way by the Israeli colonial enterprise; by a military force which, in 2002, was responsible for the siege and damage of Bethlehem’s Old City and the Church of the Nativity, as well as rich historical sites in other Palestinian cities. Even more harmful than the damage done to the physical heritage of Palestinian Christian and Muslim history, is the ongoing daily effect of Israeli occupation on the lives of Palestinians in the area, and throughout occupied Palestine.
In 2002, Israel began building a wall, 83% of which is constructed on Palestinian land and all of which is considered fully illegal under international law. This wall divides Bethlehem and Jerusalem, the Church of the Nativity from the Holy Sepulcher, for the first time in history. It leaves us Palestinians with very little of our own land and practically no natural resources, and with no freedom to move within our own country.
Jesus’ message was one of justice and peace. Despite this aggressive Israeli occupation, our message follows the light of hope brought by the Prince of Peace. We hope that this light of hope will soon become a light of freedom. This is our message. That is why we went to the United Nations, where an overwhelming world majority understood our message of peace. This is our way to break the current political deadlock and salvage the two-state solution which Israel is so intent on destroying. What happened on November 29th was a further example of why we must keep hope alive, the same hope that was reaffirmed by 138 nations that decided to stand in the right side of history. As my good friend, Fr. Faysal told me, “Our Lord listened to our prayers to keep the prospects of peace alive.”
But the overwhelming message of peace, sent from the UN, was met with more Israeli intransigence, and the approval of thousands of new settlement units aimed to divide Bethlehem from Jerusalem, particularly in the settlement of Givat Hamatos, which will complete the physical separation of the Palestinian cities of Bethlehem and Jerusalem around the area of the Mar Elias monastery, where the Christmas procession to Bethlehem starts every year. As Christmas draws nearer, for the Palestinians in the Bethlehem area, who live just eight kilometers from Jerusalem, the Holy City may as well be on another continent.
Much of the land used for settlement construction in this area belongs to Palestinian Christians from the Bethlehem district who are unable to access their property due to the construction of the illegal Israeli wall and a variety of restrictive and humiliating checkpoints. This land includes many dunams of property belonging to Palestinian churches.
Israel also announced its intention to move forward with the construction of over 3,000 settlement units around the rest of Occupied Jerusalem, aiming to give a fatal blow to the internationally-endorsed two-state solution.
By the end of this year an estimated two million tourists will have visited Bethlehem. We hope that they will see more than just the Church of the Nativity and a souvenir shop or two. We hope that they will open their eyes, as good Christians, Muslims, Jews or those of any other faith - simply as good human beings, and not turn a blind eye to this grave injustice. A recent South African Christian delegation who visited Palestine issued a joint statement with Christian Palestinians whereby they quoted Jesus when he called on people not only to “come and see” but to “go and tell what you have seen and heard” and furthermore “go and do”, i.e. act.
The Palestinians’ wish this Christmas is that the international community will not only continue to stand by us, but seriously act to put an end to the Israeli occupation, which has been contradicting the universally held values of justice and peace for almost half a century. It is a time of year when our faith and hope are renewed; we believe justice is possible in 2013. What we now need is support from our brothers and sisters throughout the world, to act with us in bringing long-awaited peace to the region.
Dr. Nabil Shaath is the Fatah Foreign Relations Commissioner and former Palestinian foreign minister. He was a member of the Madrid Peace Delegation and later was involved in negotiations with Israel that led to the signing of the Oslo Agreements. From 1993-1995, he served as the head of the Palestinian negotiation team, participating in the talks at Camp David (2000) and Taba (2001).
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