**An edited version of this article has also been published by Red Flag on 25 December. You can access the edited version by clicking here: Christmas in Bethlehem
The festive season is once again here. Nativity scenes abound in public squares, churches and even shopping centres, depicting the birth of Christ in a little town called Bethlehem. Throughout out the month of December, Christmas carols and songs of joy will be sung remembering this little town. The Bethlehem, that exists in the popular consciousness, is the one we see on the front of Christmas cards or the one Christians read about in the bible or heard about at church services – it is one of a peaceful little pastoral village, awash with shepherds and sheep. Today, however, the real Bethlehem is very different, it is a city under Israeli siege and occupation.
After forty-six years of brutal military occupation by Israel, Bethlehem resembles nothing like the image that exists in popular consciousness. Instead, it is a town transformed. It is a town where Israeli soldiers can and do roam the streets with impunity; it is a town where 10 and 12 year old children can be arrested by Israel's military without rhyme or reason; it is a town scarred by razor wire, steel cages, checkpoints, watchtowers with snipers nests and an eight metre (28 feet) wall – three times the height of the Berlin Wall - which divides and cuts Bethlehem's residents off from 70% of their land.
Today's Bethlehem is a city, where its residents, whether Christian or Muslim – like their sisters and brothers in the rest of the Occupied West Bank, East Jerusalem and Gaza – are subject to arbitrary arrest and detention without charge or trial. Like their brethren in the rest of the Occupied Palestinian Territories controlled by Israel, Palestinians in Occupied Bethlehem also suffer frequent home invasions, house demolitions and have their freedom of movement severely curtailed.
Far from being the quiet pastoral village in popular imaginings, today's Bethlehem is a graphic example of the Israel’s settler-colonial, apartheid and ethnic cleansing polices. As with the rest of the Occupied West Bank, East Jerusalem and Gaza, since Israel seized control in 1967, Bethlehemites have lost hundreds of thousands of dunams of land to Israel's settler-colonialism.
Over the last forty years, Israel has established 22 Israeli only colonies, all of which are illegal under international law, on land stolen from the residents of Bethlehem. Over the years, the Zionist state has continued to expand these settlements, taking more and more Palestinian land. In recent times, Israel has consfiscated approximately 22,000 dunams of land (22 square kilometers) to expand the illegal colonies of Gilo, Giv'at Hamatos and Har Homa, while an additional 4,000 dunams has been effectively annexed by Israel's apartheid wall. As a result, of the illegal colonies and wall, most of Bethlehem's northern land has been lost to Israel's illegal settlements and the city has been effectively cut off from and isolated from Occupied East Jerusalem.
Israel's occupation and apartheid policies has also impacted severely on the city's economy, as well as the ability of Bethlehemites to work and gain employment. As a direct result of Israel's occupation and apartheid wall, the unemployment rate in Occupied Bethlehem today sits at approximately 25%. Not only is Bethlehem's local economy, which is predominately reliant on tourism, severely impacted and damaged by Israel's occupation, Palestinian residents of the city are unable to travel freely to Jerusalem or other areas of Palestine for employment. In April 2011 alone, approximately 15,000 Palestinian Christians applied for permits to enter Occupied East Jerusalem but only 2,500 were granted a permit.
As Bethlehem's first woman mayor, Vera Baboun has noted in her Christmas Greetings issued on 1 December, "Bethlehem is not a museum, nor a wooden grotto. It is a living experience of daily struggle for existence, for a just and lasting peace, and this is the Bethlehem we also share with the world". Baboun went on to note that today, Bethlehem is "home to thousands of refugees who have been waiting for the fulfillment of their rights since 1948" and that as a result of Israel's occupation and apartheid policies, "Bethlehem is a living call for freedom and dignity".
Like Occupied Bethlehem, the rest of the West Bank, Occupied East Jerusalem and Gaza are also a living call for freedom and dignity. In the rest of the Occupied Palestinian Territories, as with Bethlehem, Israel has continued to demolish homes, steal and annex land, carry out mass arrests, restrict freedom of movement, impose curfews and carry out home invasions. Between November 28 and December 18 alone, Israeli Occupation Forces killed five Palestinian civilians, including at least one child. During this period Israel conducted 143 military invasions into Palestinian villages and towns in the Occupied West Bank and arrested 63 Palestinians, wounding dozens of other Palestinians, including children. Another 11 Palestinians, including at least 3 children were arrested at checkpoints in the Occupied West Bank.
In the three weeks between November 28 and December 18, Israeli occupation forces also used systematic and excessive force against peaceful unarmed demonstrations organised by Palestinians against Israel's occupation and apartheid policies in the Occupied West Bank. In the both the West Bank and Gaza, Israeli military forces have also regularly opened fire on unarmed Palestinian civilians, farmers and fisherman attempting to reach farmland or fishing grounds.
Over these last three weeks, as part of its relentless seven year siege on Gaza, Israel has also continued to impose a total blockade on the region, resulting in essential goods being in extreme shortage. In particular, Israel's blockade has resulted in essential items like fuel and cooking gas being severely limited. According to the Palestinian Centre for Human Rights, currently the amount of cooking gas being allowed by Israel into Gaza is meeting less than half the daily requirement needed by 1.5 million civilian population of Gaza during winter.
This year, as in years gone by, Christmas in Bethlehem and the rest of the Occupied Palestinian Territories will be one where the living experience of daily struggle for existence and self-determination will continue. This Christmas in Bethlehem, the West Bank, East Jerusalem and Gaza, will be one marked by Palestinian sumoud (steadfastness), resistance and struggle against Israel's occupation and apartheid policies, with Palestinians continuing to demand their human rights, as well as justice and freedom.
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