A NEW CHRISTMAS STORY: BETHLEHEM UNDER OCCUPATION
In many ways Bethlehem has become the quintessential Palestinian city under occupation: its population confronted with daily abuse, its historic geography and landscape ruined by the expansion of illegal settlements, the serpentine Israeli Separation Wall cutting deep into its heart and severing it from its ancient political, social, economic and religious links to Jerusalem and the rest of the West Bank, and its economic prospects are further challenged with every passing year. For the Palestinians living in Bethlehem and its environs each Christmas has become less of a reason to celebrate than a cause to reflect on the immense tragedy that has befallen this holy city, which is home to one of the oldest Christian communities on Earth.
FACT: The Israeli Occupation has dramatically restricted the Palestinians’ freedom of worship and access to churches in the Holy Land. Following the completion of Israel’s Wall in the northern part of Bethlehem City, Bethlehem and Jerusalem have now been completely separated from one another.
The Governorate and City under Occupation
Neither the Bethlehem Governorate nor the City has been spared from the devastating impact of Israel’s occupation and relentless colonization of Palestinian land. Creating ‘facts on the ground’ that render a two-state solution impossible, Israel continues to implement a series of policies that combine elements of occupation, colonization and apartheid to deliberately suffocate and fragment Bethlehem and its environs. These include the ongoing confiscation of Palestinian land for the construction of Israeli settlements and Wall in violation of international law, as well as the imposition of physical and administrative restrictions on freedom of movement for Palestinians, ranging from an ever expanding network of checkpoints and roadblocks to a punitive permit regime that limits where Palestinians can live, move and work.
· Only 13 percent of the land falling within the Bethlehem governorate is under Palestinian control;
· In the Bethlehem area alone, 32 physical barriers erected by the Israeli military—including checkpoints, roadblocks, dirt mounds, and gates—prevent freedom of movement and access for Palestinian goods and people. According to the 2010 International Religious Freedom Report issued by the US State Department, “the government of Israel continued to apply travel restrictions during the reporting period that significantly impeded freedom of access to places of worship in the West Bank and Jerusalem for Muslims and Christians.”
· There are 17 illegal Israeli settlements and numerous outposts scattered throughout the governorate, housing a combined population of approximately 91,500 settlers; the most prominent of them is the Israeli Foreign Minister, Avigdor Lieberman, who is a resident of the illegal settlement of Noqdim, in the Western Bethlehem area.
· As part of the Israeli settlement enterprise Israel maintains military control over a number of Palestinian heritage sites, including several on Palestine’s list of world heritage sites to UNESCO. Within the Bethlehem District these include the the Bilal Bin Rabah Mosque/Rachel’s Tomb, the Herodion archaeological site, and the Qumran archaeological site where the Dead Sea scrolls were discovered. The heritage sites in Bethlehem were recently affirmed by UNESCO as belonging to Palestine.
· Since 1993, Palestinians have been required to obtain Israeli military permission on a case by case basis to enter occupied East Jerusalem for any reason. If granted, such permits stipulate specified and limited crossing times.
· The unemployment in Bethlehem is approximately 23%, the majority of which is related to sectors targeted by the closure of Bethlehem and its separation from Jerusalem, mainly tourism, trade and agriculture