Beyond the Christmas lights, the real Bethlehem

Every year at Christmas time, thousands of pilgrims and journalists converge on Bethlehem. Most never get a glimpse of the real Bethlehem beyond the Christmas lights.
By Fadi Abu Sada in Bethlehem
Palestine Beitlahim

BETLEHEM, Dec. 21, 2007 (MENASSAT.COM) – Of all the cities in historic Palestine, Bethlehem is a special place, not least because it is such an important symbol for Christians.

It's a beautiful city, especially this time of year when locals spend weeks decorating the streets and the local and international media descend on the Occupied West Bank to report on the pilgrimage of thousands of Christian faithful who come to Bethlehem to celebrate Christ's birthday in the city where he was allegedly born.

But, the city that beats with life during the Christmas season is as a dead city when the holiday season is over. And what the world sees with the lights and decorations and official visits of a purely political kind, is a far cry from the view of the real Bethlehem  - a holy city whose residents live under a military occupation.

Still, thousands of people arrive from the city's northern entrance, from Jerusalem, which is the only route available because the Israeli army controls all of the transportation routes leading to Bethlehem.

Pilgrims and journalists alike drive a route that brushes alongside the massive security wall built by Israel over the last three-plus years. And it is on this wall that many catch brief glimpses of the ironic art drawing attention to the reality of those Palestinians living behind the wall.

There is a painted representation of a human leg that appears to be penetrating the solidness of the concrete separation wall. There is  also a series of huge stenciled-on paintings completed last month by the U.K.-based graffiti artist Banksy.

So visitors might see his depiction of an Israeli soldier checking the ID of a donkey, or perhaps a portrait of a Palestinian child searching an Israeli soldier – an ironic twist of actual searches endured daily by Palestinians. Then there is his monumental stencil of a dove, symbol of peace, with a target painted on its breast – awaiting a sniper's bullet.

None of the visitors can see the historical path that Christ took when making his way from Jerusalem to Bethlehem because the concrete barrier was built on the same path.

Israel does remove a section of the wall when the envoy of the Latin Patriarch Michel Sabah arrives in Bethlehem, and for a 30-minute period, it appears to the world as if nothing unusual is happening, like there is no Occupation.

Most outsiders also can't see Israeli soldiers at the checkpoints distributing flowers and sweets to the Christian pilgrims coming to Bethlehem with their vehicles, telling them: "Welcome to Israel" (Not Occupied Palestine.)

Journalists instead focus their reports on the secondary aspects of the Christian holiday - the reasons for Christian emigration out of the Holy Land, for example.

There is likely to be some reporting on the economic hardships in the Occupied Territories, showing how restaurants in Bethlehem have suffered in recent years due to a lack of tourism. Photographers may take photos of Christian bands in the square finishing only when midnight mass begins on Christmas day. Photos of the sunrise will be taken to emphasize that Christmas reflects the rise of a new dawn in Bethlehem.

Palestine TV, the official channel affiliated to the Palestinian Authority, doesn't remember Bethlehem unless it's Christmas. Then, they will send live broadcast cars to the city along with large crews of technicians to ensure 24-hours coverage of the festivities.

Why? Because the Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas always visits Bethlehem at Christmas, and leads the mass. Covering his participation is a big issue as Abbas fights for legitimacy among the Palestinian people, and all the TV channels in the Arab World will carry it.

All this coverage doesn’t reflect real life in this sacred city.

Nabil Tawfiq Audi, an intermediate level teacher of Christian Religion, said that "the real Bethlehem is supposed to occupy a larger portion in the media during this event, and I don’t feel that this side is covered sufficiently in both the local and international media."

The real Bethlehem might be the one of a group of youngsters who decided to form an unofficial framework under the name "Markab" [the boat]. Their aim is to collect money from the wealthy people who come to Bethlehem at Christmas in order to distribute it to the city's poor.

"The media doesn't know anything about this, and doesn't mention the poor people of the city and the misery of their lives," said Markab member, Raja Awwad.

According to Awwad, "the media intentionally overlooks that we in Bethlehem are still living under the Israeli occupation, and that the occupation forces penetrate daily into the city in order to carry out assassinations and detention operations. They also ignore the fact that we are living in a small prison, whose doors are open only on holidays so that we can see new faces and feel – even for a short time – that we are still alive. After that, the doors will close once again, as if nothing had happened. Where does the media stand on that?"

Will it be the same this year? Likely, yes.

Many happy returns!

Fabi Abu Sada is the director of the Palestine News Network,