Bethlehem: O Little Town of…Eye Openers
Jeff David & Linda Holtzman
Today we took off from Jerusalem for the beginning of two days in Bethlehem, which is in the West Bank, which is part of what the Israelis call the “Territories”, which is what the Palestinians call the “Occupied Territories” or “Palestine”. Just the difference in the names that this strip of land is called is an indication of the depth of the conflict between Israel and Palestine.
In the west, when we hear about the town of Bethlehem we think of a holy Christian town, a place where Jesus was born. This is all true—it’s just not all of the truth.
Bethlehem is as close to Jerusalem as Webster Groves is to Kirkwood but the difference is like night and day.
We had a guide from Bethlehem, Bashar Abu Ghannan, who is a graduate student in Economics. Bashar asked us to meet him on the Palestinian side of the checkpoint. There are checkpoints along the border between Israel and Palestine and between many of the Palestinian towns. As we drove up to the checkpoint on the Jerusalem side we expected a lengthy interview as we had from El Al Airlines security. Not at all. In fact, we briefly flashed our passports and were waved in.
As we waited in our car for Bashar to meet us we saw that people entering into Jerusalem from the Palestinian side had a much longer wait than we did.
We found out later that Palestinians must get special passes to go to Israel and that they are very, very difficult to obtain. One of the faculty members we met from the University of Bethlehem hadn’t been to Jerusalem since 1999.
The first thing we saw as we began the 2-minute drive into the West Bank was the Israeli security wall, which is over 24 feet tall in some places. We wanted to give you a website that will tell you more about the Wall—the problem is that the descriptions are very different depending on whether the source is from the Israeli government, the political left of Israel or the Palestinians. Here is a small sampling:
From the Jewish Virtual Library
September 2000, Israel’s unity government decided to construct a security fence near the northern part of the pre-1967 “Green Line” between Israel and the West Bank to prevent Palestinian terrorists from infiltrating into Israeli population centers. The project has had the overwhelming support of the Israeli public which sees the barrier as vital to their security.
From the Christian Science Monitor
But when Israelis lay out their safety concerns, Palestinians, pointing to the barrier’s path through fields, around cities, and between neighbors, see only a blueprint for their suffering.
In the short term, the barrier blocks Palestinians from their land; their livelihoods, and their access to resources like water, schools, and health care. In the long term, it will stifle economic growth and, under an Ottoman-era law still in effect, could lead to the permanent loss of land. Many Palestinians believe this is the true aim of Israel’s West Bank policy.
And this is how the day progressed. We met with Bashar, we met with a Professor from the University of Bethlehem, we met with Samir Hazboun, the President of the Bethlehem Chamber of Commerce. We saw poverty and destruction and we saw small pockets of wealth and hotels that had previously been Turkish palaces.
The University professor, Fadi, told us of a time that he had been traveling to a conference in Italy and was detained by the Israeli military who finally allowed him to go to the conference and set an appointment for him with the military when he returned. After waiting for several hours he was instructed to stand outside the military compound and take off all his clothes in front of other people to see if he was safe. When it was determined that he had no weapons – he was instructed to go home.
Samir told us of his many personal friends and partnerships for peace with Israelis. He believes there is a way for Israeli needs for security to be met and for Palestine’s need for prosperity to be met. In Bethlehem right now, the unemployment rate is over 45%.
Everyone we saw and met was friendly to us and kind. In fact, when we first met Samir he asked us in a very mischievous, tongue-in-cheek way, “How do you like our polite terrorists?” His point was that the contrast of the people and conditions in Bethlehem were far different than the usual media images we see of Palestinian extremists and terrorists.
We are still digesting it all.
Jeff David & Linda Holtzman of Webster University in Saint Louis travelled to Israel-Palestine in January 2007 and wrote a series of articles on their visit. Visit their site where you will also find many photographs at http://web.mac.com/jeffdavid63/iWeb/webstermideast/Welcome.html