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News and views on Israel, Zionism and the war on terrorism.

December 26, 2002

The saddest Christmas ever

This headline, or variations on it, has been making the rounds the last few days. Nice PR ploy by those same folks who brought us the "Jenin massacre." Only this time, they've managed to orchestrate a real live tragedy. And then blamed it, of course, on Israel.

So let's review how we arrived at the situation where there is no joy in Bethlehem on Christmas Day, 2002. Bethlehem was once a thriving town with a population that was upwards of 50% Christian. It had a robust tourist industry, with pilgrims flocking from all over the world at all times of the year, but never so many as at Christmas. (And, by the way, Christmas is traditionally celebrated on three different days in Bethlehem -- December 25 by Roman Catholics and Protestants, January 6 by the Greek and Russian Orthodox and January 18 by the Armenians.)

There are a number of reasons why the Christian population of Bethlehem (and, indeed, of Judea and Samaria generally) has been shrinking dramatically. But the reasons have nothing to do with Israel's "occupation." In fact, the exodus began long ago. Many left under Jordanian occupation. The exodus continued after 1967 but seems to have stepped up more since Oslo. In an article entitled "The Beleaguered Christians of the Palestinian-Controlled Areas," David Raab provided one view:

Between the 1993 signing of the Oslo Accords until the 1995 transfer of Bethlehem to the PA, Palestinian Christians lobbied Israel against the transfer. The late Christian mayor, Elias Freij, warned that it would result in Bethlehem becoming a town with churches, but no Christians. He lobbied Israel to include Bethlehem in the boundaries of Greater Jerusalem, as was the Jordanian practice until 1967.[fn]

In December 1997, The Times of London reported: "Life in (PA ruled) Bethlehem has become insufferable for many members of the dwindling Christian minorities. Increasing Muslim-Christian tensions have left some Christians reluctant to celebrate Christmas in the town at the heart of the story of Christ's birth."[fn] The situation has become so desperate for Christians that, "during his visit to Bethlehem, Pope John Paul II felt it necessary to urge Palestinian Christians already in March 2000: 'Do not be afraid to preserve your Christian heritage and Christian presence in Bethlehem.'"[fn]

More recently, on July 17, 2000, upon realizing that then Prime Minister Barak was contemplating repartitioning Jerusalem, the leaders of the Greek-Orthodox, Latin and Armenian Churches sent a letter to him, President Clinton, and Chairman Arafat, demanding to be consulted before such action was undertaken. Barak's proposal also triggered a flood of requests for Israeli I.D. cards by thousands of East Jerusalem Arabs. (This plus the fact that Israel's own Christian population is actually growing refute any claim that emigration is a result of Israel's treatment of Christians.)

Here's a different point of view, which claims that Christian emigration has more to do with "subtle demographics" than with Christian/Muslim tensions. But, again, not because of the "occupation."

Nevertheless, under Israeli rule from 1967 to 1994 and under the PA from 1995 to 1999, Christmas in Bethlehem remained a moving and joyful event. There was tension, there were checkpoints, but the show went on. So what happened? What we're hearing is that Israel "reoccupied" the city, leading to economic devastation, fear, loss of tourism, loss of livelihood. But what we're not hearing is that all this is due to a precipitating event, a war launched against Israel in September 2000, without which none of this devastation need have occurred. What we're not hearing is that due to this same precipitating event, the celebrations in Jerusalem and Tel Aviv and Haifa are also subdued, tourism all over Israel has also disappeared, Israelis have also lost their jobs and their livelihood but, worse, they've lost their lives as they go about their daily activities. Shopping, eating, riding a bus, coming out of synagogue. And what we're not hearing is that PA sponsored terrorists have cynically used Bethlehem to lauch their murderous rampages because they know exactly what impact any effort to curtail their activities there will have.

If there was no joy in Bethlehem yesterday, it's because those who currently rule there have decided there's to be no joy and have done everything within their power to assure that their decision was implemented. Let's please get this part of the story straight, at least.

[cross-posted at In Context]