The story of the nativity is central to the Christmas season and each year thousands of people visit Bethlehem to see where Jesus is said to have been born. However, Bethlehem is also home to 25,000 Palestinians who live in the shadow of a separation wall. They cannot move freely, struggle to maintain a livelihood, and cannot return to their ancestral villages. Trócaire’s Development Education Programme Manager, Mary Coogan, recently paid a visit.
Walking through the old town of Bethlehem towards the Church of the Nativity truly does feel like walking through history. Daily life goes on, with animated haggling between shoppers and traders, children coming and going from school and the smell of fresh coffee and spices hanging in the air. Walking through the streets I was struck by how many millions of feet have covered this path over the centuries, and how much history the buildings hold in their walls.
We arrived in Manger Square in Bethlehem before 10am but the queue to enter the Church of the Nativity was already out the door. So we walked down a short adjoining street towards the Chapel of the Milk Grotto, a street lined with shops selling beautiful olive wood carvings and local embroidery.
Something felt strange about the street that I initially couldn’t put my finger on. It took me a few minutes to realise that having just left a site heaving with visitors, with tour buses arriving every few minutes, we were the only people on this street. There was no one browsing in these Palestinian shops, no one in front or behind us.
As we stopped to talk to some of the shop owners, there was a palpable sense of frustration that they are not seeing any of the economic benefits of Bethlehem’s tourist industry. One trader told us how many visiting pilgrims are told not to visit Palestinian shops because they will not be given a fair price, and many do not stay in Bethlehem but travel by bus to and from hotels in Jerusalem. He talked about wanting to provide for his family and told us we were his first customers in days.
Unlike in Hebron, where trade and business has been cut off due to restrictions imposed by the occupying military, Bethlehem has plenty of shops and tourists. But the situation with the Palestinian shops is just another example of how the enforced segregation that forms part of the occupation permeates so much of daily life, including people’s ability to make a living.
Another physical manifestation of this segregation visible throughout Bethlehem is the separation wall. It snakes through the centre of the town, encircling Rachel’s Tomb and cutting the town off from Jerusalem. Palestinians wanting to travel between Jerusalem and the West Bank, including Bethlehem, require a special permit and must pass through a military checkpoint in order to get through the separation wall.
We could not use a local taxi driver to bring us back to Jerusalem because he did not have the permit needed to pass the separation wall. These kinds of restrictions on movement impact on Palestinians day-to-day activities. They live in the shadow of a huge concrete wall that divides them from each other, their land and livelihoods. The wall in Bethlehem is covered in street art, including several pieces by urban artist Banksy. This art represents a way for Palestinians to reclaim this space and to use the wall as a canvas to communicate with the world what life is like under the occupation.
We visited Aida Camp, a refugee camp first established shortly after the “Nakba” or “catastrophe” in 1947 which saw hundreds of thousands of Palestinians forcibly displaced from their homes and villages following the establishment of the State of Israel. We had the privilege to meet and speak with young Palestinians between 11 and 17 years old who are now the third generation of their families to live in Aida Camp. They all spoke about having their homes raided by soldiers in the middle of the night, how they do not feel safe inside or outside their homes, how they have no space to play, and of watching their father or brother being arrested in the middle of the night.
In introducing themselves, they all said what village they were displaced from, showing how strong the connection still is to the towns, villages and homes that Palestinians were forced to leave during the Nakba.