Bethlehem, Palestine is a special place to celebrate Christmas. It’s home to the Church of the Nativity and the field where shepherds, tending their flocks by night, spotted the star heralding Jesus’ birth. But apart from the historical mystique, here in Bethlehem we celebrate Christmas much like Christians throughout the world. We hang lights from the rooftops. We erect a tree in Manger Square. We host a Christmas market. Our children carol and perform Christmas pageants. Christmas in Bethlehem, as elsewhere, is a time for family, peace, love and joy.
But our joy is mixed with melancholy, for we have been living under Israeli military occupation for 40 years.
While children elsewhere reenact the story of Christmas against backdrops of starry night skies, we’ll celebrate in the shadow of a 20-foot high wall that surrounds us on three sides and separates us from Jerusalem.
In Shepherds’ Field the sheep still graze, but the ground is being eaten away by Israeli settlement expansion. The Israeli government tightly controls construction on our native land so we can only build vertically.
In Bethlehem, Christmas is traditionally spent with family. But Israeli restrictions on movement make it difficult for our families in other parts of the West Bank and Israel to visit us. And it’s impossible to see our friends and relatives in Gaza. To enter or leave Bethlehem we must pass through an Israeli checkpoint. To visit Jerusalem, we must obtain a permit from the Israeli authorities. A journey that without barriers would take 10 minutes can take us hours due to long delays at the checkpoints and roads out of bounds for non-Jews. With travel so arduous an undertaking, fewer Palestinians are making the journey to Bethlehem these days, even on Christmas.
Christmas is an especially difficult time for those families missing a loved one. Every family in Bethlehem has a relative who has been held captive in Israeli prisons, often detained without reason, or simply arrested for not carrying an identity card. I still remember the despair I felt the Christmas we celebrated under curfew because my cousin George, detained by Israeli soldiers without charge at the age of 16, couldn’t be with us. Sitting glumly on our porch for a Christmas barbecue, we were visited by Israeli soldiers who informed us that we weren’t permitted to eat outdoors during curfew.
Amidst the festivities, this Christmas we will gather in Shepherds’ Field for a candlelight procession in honor of the Palestinian political prisoners in Israeli jails who are unable to rejoice with their families and to protest ongoing Israeli confiscation of our land.
Despite the daily oppression, we persevere, taking pride in our heritage and our ties to the land. But the restrictions on our liberties have taken a toll. Travel restrictions have led to economic stagnation as it has become difficult and costly to transport goods. Israeli land confiscation is eating into the livelihood of the local farmers. Many youth are emigrating in search of better opportunities.
Given this reality, tourism has become the only hope for Bethlehem’s economy. Although travel restrictions on foreign tourists are not as great as those imposed on Palestinians, most tourists have been discouraged from visiting Bethlehem. Those who come arrive in buses from their base in Israel for only a few hours. They’re unable to experience the local culture, food and handicrafts that Bethlehem has to offer. They don’t interact with the local community or contribute to the local economy. In their haste to visit the dead stones, they overlook the living stones.
We, as Palestinian Christians, are proud to keep alive the traditions of our forefathers. Without tourism, Bethlehem’s economy will die, the locals will leave and all that will be left is an open-air museum.
I invite you to come to Bethlehem, to visit us—the living stones of Bethlehem—as well as our churches. Stay in our hotels, inns and guesthouses, experience our rich culture and hospitality and find solidarity in our hardships and our aspirations.
George Rishmawi is a Palestinian nonviolence peace activist from Beit Sahour near Bethlehem, Palestine. He serves as coordinator for the Siraj Center for Holy Land Studies in Beit Sahour.