Ha’aretz and the Christmas Siege That Wasn’t

Ha’aretz‘s Noam Ben-Zeev, who two years ago heroically braved a uniquely “apartheid road” (on which Palestinians and Israelis together travel freely) to attend a music event in Nablus, does it again. This time it’s Christmas in Bethlehem. In a feature Thursday (“Beethoven reborn,” Dec. 29), he writes that Palestinians may not enter or exit Bethlehem:

This was the feeling during the Christian festival of light, the holiday of renewal and optimism: a sense of siege in a city that is cut off from its surroundings by walls and checkpoints, with no one entering or leaving. A simple question to passersby about how to get to the Church of the Nativity prompted some bitterness from one: “You prohibit us from leaving the city, I can’t even travel to Jerusalem, and you Israelis roam around here freely and want to visit the churches!”

Except, as reported in an Associated Press article that appears on Ha’aretz‘s very own site, “Thousands of Palestinians from inside [the] West Bank also converged on the town” of Bethlehem for Christmas festivities, which also drew a record number of international tourists. And, as the Palestinian Maan News Agency reported:

Boy and girl scouts from across the occupied West Bank and Jerusalem are assembling near a Catholic center in central Bethlehem, lining up before they parade toward the Nativity Church.

But it wasn’t only Palestinians from the West Bank who visited Bethlehem for Christmas. In addition, several hundred Christian Arabs from Gaza also made their way to Bethlehem, via Israel, as pictured below:

Dec. 22, 2011 — A Christian Palestinian family leaves Gaza to enter Israel through the Erez border crossing between Israel and northern Gaza Strip on Dec. 22, 2011. The Israeli army on Thursday allowed some 550 Christian Palestinians to enter Israel as they make their way to the West Bank town of Bethlehem to celebrate Christmas. Zuma/AP photo by Ashraf Amra

As for residents leaving the city, throughout the year, and during the holidays, there is no restriction on Palestinians leaving Bethlehem to travel to other parts of the West Bank. Bethlehem residents, like other West Bank Palestinians, require a permit to enter Jerusalem or the rest of Israel, and thousands have a permit for study, work, and medical care, among other reasons. During the holiday season, Israeli authorites are offering visitors’ permits to Palestinian Christians of all ages from the West Bank to enter Israel. Another 400 have received permits to leave travel abroad via Israel’s Ben-Gurion International airport.

In a separate matter, Ben-Zeev makes the bizarre claim that Bethlehem’s

society is homogenous, so it doesn’t suffer from the kind of violence that erupts, for instance, in East Jerusalem, where a large army and police presence and Jewish enclaves in the heart of the Arab neighborhoods inflame the situation and where a quiet population transfer is constantly taking place through various means.

This is a particularly peculiar statement to make with respect to Bethlehem, precisely because it is the scene of a quiet population transfer and interreligious tension. The city was 85 percent Christian in 1948. Due to Muslim violence, initimidation and violence against Christians, that overwhelming Christian majority has dwindled to less than 15 percent. As the Daily Mail reported in 2006:

George Rabie, a 22-year-old taxi driver from the Bethlehem suburb of Beit Jala, is proud of his Christianity, even though it puts him in daily danger. Two months ago, he was beaten up by a gang of Muslims who were visiting Bethlehem from nearby Hebron and who had spotted the crucifix hanging on his windscreen.

“Every day, I experience discrimination,” he says.” “It is a type of racism. We are a minority so we are an easier target. Many extremists from the villages are coming into Bethlehem.”

Jeriez Moussa Amaro, a 27-year-old aluminum craftsman from Beit Jala is another with first-hand experience of the appalling violence that Christians face. Five years ago, his two sisters, Rada, 24, and Dunya, 18, were shot dead by Muslim gunmen in their own home. Their crime was to be young, attractive Christian women who wore Western clothes and no veil. Rada had been sleeping with a Muslim man in the months before her death.

A terrorist organisation, the Al-Aqsa Martyrs Brigades, issued a statement claiming responsibility, which said: “We wanted to clean the Palestinian house of prostitutes.” Jeriez says: “A Christian man is weak compared to a Muslim man.

“They have bigger, more powerful families and they know people high up in the Palestinian authority.”

The fear of attack has prompted many Christian families to emigrate..

Samir Qumsieh is general manager of Al-Mahed – Nativity – which is the only Christian television station in Bethlehem. He has had death threats and visits from armed men demanding three acres of his land – and he is now ready to leave.

“As Christians, we have no future here,” he says.

Concerning the Muslim intimidation and theft of Christian lands, journalist Khaled Abu Toameh wrote:

Christian families have long been complaining of intimidation and land theft by Muslims, especially those working for the Palestinian Authority.

Many Christians in Bethlehem and the nearby [Christian] towns of Bet Sahour and Beit Jalla have repeatedly complained that Muslims have been seizing their lands either by force or through forged documents. . . .

Moreover, several Christian women living in these areas have complained about verbal and sexual assaults by Muslim men.

Over the past few years, a number of Christian businessmen told me that they were forced to shut down their businesses because they could no longer afford to pay “protection” money to local Muslim gangs.

While it is true that the Palestinian Authority does not have an official policy of persecution against Christians, it is also true that this authority has not done enough to provide the Christian population with a sense of security and stability.

In addition, Christians continue to complain about discrimination when it comes to employment in the public sector. Since the establishment of the Palestinian Authority 15 years ago, not a single Christian was ever appointed to a senior security post. Although Bethlehem has a Christian mayor, the governor, who is more senior than him, remains a Muslim.

Similarly, Harry de Quetteville reported Sept. 9, 2005 in the Daily Telegraph (London):

Christians in the Holy Land have handed a dossier detailing incidents of violence and intimidation by Muslim extremists to Church leaders in Jerusalem, one of whom said it was time for Christians to “raise our voices” against the sectarian violence.

The dossier includes 93 alleged incidents of abuse by an “Islamic fundamentalist mafia” against Palestinian Christians, who accused the Palestinian Authority of doing nothing to stop the attacks.

The dossier also includes a list of 140 cases of apparent land theft, in which Christians in the West Bank were allegedly forced off their land by gangs backed by corrupt judicial officials. . . .

The alleged attacks on Christians have come despite repeated appeals to the Palestinian Authority to rein in Muslim gangs.

A spokesman for the Apostolic Delegate, the Pope’s envoy to Jerusalem, said nothing had been done to tackle the problem. “The Apostolic Delegate presented a list of all the problems to Mr [Yasser] Arafat before he died,” he said. “He promised a lot but he did very little.”

In the offices of his tiny Christian television station in Bethlehem, Samir Qumsieh said this week that Christian appeals to Mr Arafat’s successor as Palestinian President, Mahmoud Abbas, had also gone unheeded.

“At least Arafat responded,” he said, “Abbas does not answer our letters.”

Noam Ben-Zeev, a music critic, should stick to what he knows.

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