Phoebe Greenwood, Bethlehem
22 December 2011
If Joseph and Mary were making their way to Bethlehem today, the Christmas story would be a little different, says Father Ibrahim Shomali, a parish priest in the town. The couple would struggle to get into the city, let alone find a hotel room.
"If Jesus were to come this year, Bethlehem would be closed," says the priest of Bethlehem's Beit Jala parish. "He would either have to be born at a checkpoint or at the separation wall. Mary and Joseph would have needed Israeli permission – or to have been tourists.
"This really is the big problem for Palestinians in Bethlehem: what will happen when they close us off completely?"
Bethlehem is the heart of Christian Palestine and it swells with pride every Christmas. Manger Square is transformed into a grotto of lights and stalls crowned by a towering Christmas tree. Strings of illuminated angels, stars and bells festoon the streets. But just a few minutes' drive to the north, the festive atmosphere stops abruptly.
A strip of Israeli settlements built on 18 sq km of what was once northern Bethlehem threatens to cut the city off from its historic twin, Jerusalem. To the Israeli authorities, these have been neighbourhoods of Jerusalem since 1967. One of the settlements, Har Homa, is built on land where angels are said to have announced the birth of Christ to local shepherds. A narrow corridor of land between Har Homa and another settlement, Gilo, still connects Bethlehem to Jerusalem but the construction of Givat Hamatos, a new settlement announced in October, will fill this in a matter of years.
The European Union and United Nations routinely denounce Israel's unilateral settlement expansion but in October, EU high commissioner Baroness Catherine Ashton warned the construction of Givat Hamatos was "of particular concern as [it] would cut the geographic contiguity between Jerusalem and Bethlehem".
European concern is not slowing Israel's progress. Last week, 500 new units were approved for Har Homa and a further 348 in Betar Illit, on Bethlehem's western boundary. Earlier this month, an additional 267 units were sanctioned for settlements running up to the edge of the city's southern suburbs, where the Ministry of Defence also gave settlers permission to start a farm on Palestinian land. This is in addition to the 6,782 new apartments already slated for Har Homa, Gilo and Givat Hamatos.
In the short term, the closure won't make a big difference to everyday life in Bethlehem: the separation wall already prevents Palestinians from entering Jerusalem from the town without an Israeli permit.
But this ring of settlements will permanently change the geography of the biblical landscape: if a peace agreement razes the separation wall, the two cities will remain divided.
Israeli activist Hargit Ofram, director of Peace Now, reads a clear political intention in Israel's plans: "These efforts are being made to prevent a possible two-state solution because in order for that to work, you would need a viable Palestinian state with its capital in East Jerusalem.
"If that capital is going to be surrounded by settlements, Israel would have to remove them. The more Israel is building, the higher the price of a Palestinian state is becoming."
A coalition of 20 rights organisations including Oxfam and Amnesty International warned this month that the number of Palestinian homes demolished in the West Bank and East Jerusalem by Israeli authorities had doubled in the past year.
Under the terms of the Oslo Accords, 13% of Bethlehem now falls within Areas A and B controlled by the Palestinian Authority. This area houses 87.6% of the Palestinian population. The rest falls in Area C, where Israel controls who builds what.
The al-Makour valley is Bethlehem's last green space and one of few areas left for urban expansion. It is in Area C and overlooked by Gilo checkpoint at one end and Har Homa settlement on the other. Israel's separation wall is slated to run through the middle of the valley. No Palestinian has been given a permit to build here since 1967.
Despite Israel's building restrictions, Miranda Nasry Qasasfeh spent every weekend of the past year renovating a stone storehouse owned by her husband's family for 150 years. She built a new iron roof and had planted almond, plum and eskadinia trees, which were about to bear their first fruit. Hers was one of four Palestinian structures in al-Makour demolished on 12 December. Most of the trees were uprooted.
Qasasfeh's 75-year-old father rushed to the site of the demolition, where he found his daughter in deep distress. Hours later, he suffered a stroke and is now paralysed down his left side. Given the events of the past week, Qasasfeh has postponed putting up Christmas decorations.
"The Israeli commander told me that I have nothing here, that it is not my land. But it is and we need to live and expand. What other choice do we have? Should I go an build on someone else's land?" she asks.
But despite the destruction of her property, Miranda Qasasfeh still has hope that the political situation will change. She has threatened to disown her eldest son if he carries out his threat of leaving Bethlehem to find work elsewhere.
"I keep telling my children, planting it in their minds, there is nowhere else in the world like this. We cannot leave." She adds: "And we have Christmas. For a few days at least we can forget, or try to forget, what is happening here."
Father Shomali's outlook is more glum: "When I look down my church register, many of the historic family names from the area have already gone. In 20 years, I think we will have no more Christians in Bethlehem."
Dr Jad Isaac, an expert in Bethlehem's demographics and a consultant to the Palestinian president, Mahmoud Abbas, says aside from the physical restrictions on development, Bethlehem's economy is being strangled by the loss of land and restrictions on Palestinian movement.
With work in Jerusalem now impossible to all but the 6,000 granted permits to work inside Israel, unemployment in Bethlehem sits at 23%, poverty levels simmer at 18%. Many have little option but to work illegally for £25 a day building the nearby settlements. Dr Isaac's forecast is bleak.
"The little town of Bethlehem? It will soon be the little ghetto surrounded in all directions by Israeli settlements," he predicts. "We've already passed the stage where Bethlehem can be saved. Frankly, that's why I don't celebrate Christmas any more."