Saturday, December 24, 2016

A Christmas Message from Occupied Bethlehem


Dear friends, 
once again its Christmas.  Shopping centres are full of lights and Christmas decorations.  Christmas cheers, carols and songs ring out.  In public squares and churches around the world, there are nativity scenes depicting the birth of Christ in a little town called Bethlehem. 

But Bethlehem, the one that exists in the popular consciousness, the one we see on the front of Christmas cards or the one Christians read about in the bible, is not the one that exists today.  The Bethlehem of popular consciousness is a peaceful little pastoral village, awash with shepherds and sheep, where angels came to herald the birth of the Christ.

The real Bethlehem, however, is very different.  After 49 years of Israeli's illegal occupation,  it continues to be a city under siege. It continues to be a city, where 25,000 Palestinians experience apartheid on a daily basis. 

Today Bethlehem, the city of Christ's birth, is surrounded by 18 illegal Israel colonies and the apartheid wall, cutting of the little town of Jesus from the rest of the Occupied West Bank and Occupied East Jerusalem.  Israel's occupation regime, apartheid wall and occupation military prevent Palestinian freedom of movement, freedom of worship and from freedom to live their lives as any of us would desire. Today, if Joseph and Mary were to make the journey from Nazareth to Bethlehem, they would not be able to reach the city or the manager where the bible tells us Mary gave birth to Jesus.

Today in Occupied Bethlehem, whether you are Christian or Muslim, you will be subject to restriction on your freedom of movement, subject to frequent home invasions, house demolitions, the arbitrary arrest family members and detention without trail.

The city of the Christ's birth is today completely encircled by Israel apartheid wall and 22 illegal colonies, preventing Palestinian freedom of movement and destroying Palestinian tourism and livelihoods. 

Vera Barboun, Bethlehem's first female Mayor (who was elected in 2012) in her annual Christmas message once again highlighted the Palestinian struggle, while also called for mercy, care and peace for all those suffering around the world.  Citing Palestinian Poet, Mahmoud Darwish poem "Think of Others", which admonishes those in power: "As you conduct your wars - think of others. Don't forget those who want peace", Baboun asked:
Let us think of the children who are the victims of war, families who are being detached and displaced from their origins, and countries that are being stratified. Here resides the cruelty of war because of which humanity falls to destruction and lose the meaning of mercy in our lives. Let us think of others, let us engulf them with love, and fill their hearts with hope".
She went on to call for an end to Israel's illegal occupation, saying:
"Let 2017 witness the end of occupation in Palestine, for what this year enfolds of unique symbolism recalling 100 years of Balfour declaration, 70 years for the decision of the partition of Palestine, 30 years for the first Palestinian Intifada, and 10 years for the Palestinian internal division. Yes, it is time for the world to stand together in unity to end the suffering of our Palestinian people, whose identity resides in the sustainability of their existence as people and land. 
Yes, it is from Bethlehem that we send a message of life in Christmas and throughout the year to all innocents suffering all over the world. We pray to our baby lord Jesus for peace would prevail in the year 2017 with courageous decisions and acts to achieve peace. We hope families would reunite on their land after having experienced the bitter refuge far from their homeland. We as Palestinians feel their misery as more than 6 million Palestinian refugees are still scattered in the world, dreaming to return home. In addition to the compulsorily deportees and prisoners in the Israeli prisons longing for their liberty and freedom.
It all began in Bethlehem, where the crib designates mercy and life. From that humble cradle God’s mercy emerged to humanity to give hope and serenity to those who need it, so that Mercy would indeed be the true meaning of Christmas.
Palestine is our homeland, Bethlehem is our town. Bethlehem is a house that lives hope, engulfed with the spirit of resilience and love, and prays for our homeland, its people, and the entire humanity. Merry Christms and Happy New Year"

Each year, Palestinian activists in Occupied Bethlehem also seek to highlight both the 
oppression that the Palestinian people face, while also celebrating their humanity.  Through their resistance and sumoud (steadfastness) to Israel's ongoing atrocities, war crimes and apartheid regime, the people of Palestine reaffirm their dignity and love of life. 

All protest photos: Oren Ziv, ActiveStills

On  23 December - once again - hundreds of Palestinians, joined by Israel anti-occupation activists and internationals, marched to Checkpoint 300, which blocks freedom of movement for Palestinians between Occupied Bethlehem and other Palestinian cities in the Occupied West Bank.  The Palestinian, Israel and international protesters sought to highlight Israel's continuing apartheid and occupation by pointing out that if Joseph and Mary would find it impossible to return to Bethlehem today from Nazareth because of Israel military checkpoints and apartheid wall.

Today as we celebrate Christmas, please also remember the people of Palestine and their struggle. And as we do, let us remember that  despite Israel's occupation and apartheid regime, that despite the restrictions on their freedom of movement, their freedom of worship, their freedom to live life in peace, the Palestinian people celebrate life. Not just every Christmas, but every day, every week, every month and every year.  They resist and demand dignity and celebrate joy and happiness with those they love, in spite of Israel's brutality and human rights abuses. 

Let us stand with them in the fight for dignity, human rights and self-determination. If you haven't already done so, please consider joining the Palestinian solidarity struggle. You can do this by joining a local Palestine solidarity group in your town or city, on your university campus or school or at your place of worship. If there is none, please consider setting one up.

If this is not your forte, you also can stand in solidarity with the people of Palestine by simply writing to your local newspaper and politician and calling on them to oppose Israel's occupation and apartheid regime. You can do this by posting information about the Palestinian struggle and Israel's occupation on social media and talking with your friends, family and colleagues about what is happening in Occupied Palestine.

Please also consider supporting the Palestinian Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) campaign, which is a non-violent campaign which seeks to put pressure on Israel until it abides by international law.

For more information on the situation in Occupied Bethlehem, I have included below an article that was published in 2015, which gives a good overview of the situation in Occupied Bethlehem. Since it was written, the occupation has only deepened and the Palestinian people have been forced to endure even worse conditions both in Occupied Bethlehem but also the rest of the Occupied West Bank, Occupied East Jerusalem and in Gaza. 

I have also included below some of my previous Christmas posts about life and resistance in Occupied Bethlehem below, including photos and videos:

2015: Christmas in Occupied Bethelehm: Resistance and Life in Occupied Palestine!

2014: Images of Resistance: Christmas in Occupied Palestine 2014

2013: Christmas in Occupied Bethlehem: a living call for freedom and dignity

2007: Christmas in Occupied Bethlehem

I wish you all a very Merry Christmas and Happy New Year.

For a Free Palestine in 2017!

In solidarity, Kim

    Checkpoint, Occupied Bethlehem

Stealing Bethlehem

By James Zogby - Maan News, 2 January 2015

For those who do not know the place, Bethlehem possesses a timeless quality, derived from these artistic creations. It is a place of mystery and contradictions.

It is the peaceful little town that played an out-sized role in history; the birthplace of Jesus, the child born in a cave, heralded by angels, and visited by shepherds and kings.

For hundreds of millions of Christians world-wide, these are the images that define Bethlehem. Sadly, in reality, all of this is but a fantasy, since the pressures of daily life confronted by the residents of this historic community paint a remarkably different portrait.

Suffering under an Israeli military occupation since 1967, Bethlehem is slowly being strangled. It is losing land to settlement construction, hemmed in by a 30 foot high concrete wall, stripped of its resources, and denied access to external markets. As a result, 25 percent of Bethlehem’s people are unemployed, while 35 percent live below the poverty level.

Before the occupation, for example, thousands of Palestinians in Bethlehem were employed as craftsmen known worldwide for their olive-wood and mother-of-pearl artifacts. Today, denied the ability to freely export and hurt by the instability of the occupation, that industry employs only a few hundred.

Similarly, Bethlehem’s tourism has suffered. Israeli companies that dominate that field bring tourists to stay in hotels in areas they control, making day trips to Bethlehem’s holy places. The crowds come to the town, but their revenues disproportionately go the Israelis.

The town has lost so much land to Israeli confiscation for settlement construction that, because it can no longer expand, it must build vertically. As a result, what is left of Bethlehem has become overcrowded, with traffic congesting its narrow streets.

Israeli leaders often complain that they must expand their settlements further so that their young can find housing. And they insist that they must continue to build their wall, in order to protect their people who live in these illegal colonies.

What they do not say is that the expansion of the mammoth projects at Har Homa, Gilo, Har Gilo, Betar Ilit, Giva’ot, and more are occurring at the expense of Palestinians living in the Bethlehem region. The Israelis call these colonies “neighborhoods of Jerusalem.” This is but a crude effort to obfuscate the reality that they are all built on Bethlehem area land — illegally confiscated by Israel and then unilaterally annexed to what they call “Greater Jerusalem.”

As a result, Palestinians now retain only tenuous control of 13 percent of the Bethlehem region — with the Israelis still threatening to take more. In fact, the 22 Israeli settlements built in the Bethlehem region, the roads that connect them, and the wall that protects them were all built on land taken from Palestinians.

And the new expansion plans for Jewish-only housing and the extension of the wall simply means that more land will be taken, leaving less for Palestinians

Look at a map and you will see that Bethlehem is but a few miles from Jerusalem. As late as 20 years ago, standing near Manger Square, one could look out over a green space, the hill of Jabal Abul Ghnaim, and see the Holy City. The trip, by car, was only 15 to 20 minutes.

Today, that view has been obliterated by the 30-foot-high wall, and that green space, where Palestinian families once picnicked, is now the site of the monstrous concrete settlement of Har Homa — home to 25,000 Israelis. As a result of the settlements, Jewish-only roads, and the wall, an entire generation of young Palestinians have grown up never having been to Jerusalem.

Not only that, but the entire population has been cut off from the city that was their metropole — the hub that provided them medical, social, educational services, markets and sources of employment, and venues for cultural and spiritual enrichment.

All that is now beyond their reach.

Today, the Palestinian population of the Bethlehem region is 210,000. There are over 110,000 Israeli settlers, with plans to double that number in the near future. Facing this human onslaught, Palestinians have taken their case to the World Court which ruled that the settlements and the wall are illegal — in clear violation of international laws designed after World War II to protect the rights of people living in territories occupied in time of war.

In response, Israel, with the backing of the US, acts with impunity continuing to build, to move its people into Palestinian land, and to take still more land.

Looming large over the lives of Bethlehemites is the Israeli plan to extend the wall in the north through one of the last remaining green spaces in the region. This portion of the wall is designed to zig-zag along a path that will cut through the vineyards and olive orchards of the Convent at Cremisan, separating the children of Beit Jala from their school, and confiscating land owned by 54 Palestinian families.

Once completed, the wall will allow the Israelis to expand and connect two settlements of Gilo and Har Gilo. It is, as described by Bethlehem’s mayor, Vera Baboun, “the final knot in the noose around the neck of Bethlehem.”

All this is happening while Christians in the West blissfully sing of the “peaceful little town,” not hearing the cries of its people. More disturbing is the degree to which policymakers and those who should know better deliberately turn a deaf ear to Palestinian appeals for recognition of their plight, thereby enabling the continuation of this injustice.

Meanwhile, in Bethlehem, hope gives way to despair and thoughts of peace to feelings of anger. Attention must be paid to this tragedy.

Just for a moment, think of Bethlehem and instead of imagining the shepherds and the angels, think of life as it is in that town today.

Imagine what you would feel if you lived in Bethlehem and saw your land taken to make way for homes and roads for another people. And imagine how you would feel if your sons and daughters were forced into exile to find employment, to make way for the sons and daughters of another people who have come to live on your land.

Then listen carefully and hear the cry of the people of that little town.

James Zogby is the founder and president of the Arab American Institute, the political and policy research arm of the Arab-American community.

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