Bethlehem: Hidden from Sight

I passed through Bethlehem fairly routinely
during my time in Palestine. A bustling city, it's anything but still or peaceful, and far removed from my childhood imaginations. I'd occasionally see tourists in Bethlehem, usually outside of the Church of the Nativity (Jesus' birthplace). We seemed to be on different planets. Maybe it's just that I was inevitably coming from some sort of activism and they were on vacation. But I feel our disconnect was more substantial than our plans for the day. I often had the eerie sense that Palestine was invisible to tourists; that it was hidden from sight.

I could start in Manger Square, outside of the Church of the Nativity, which is a swirl of tour groups, cameras and foreign languages. The tour buses barely fit on narrow cobblestone streets. There is an informational display there, telling about land confiscation and the plight of Bethlehem. It largely goes unnoticed.

At the edges of Manger Square are the tourist shops, going out of business since Israeli settlements started making deals with the tour companies. Behind the church are the forgotten olivewood carving shops, displaying ornate nativity sets and crucifixes. A thin film of sawdust hangs in the air. They’ve been hid hard by increased competition from Israeli settlements. It always seemed like a secret section of town, behind the church. Hidden from sight.

Bethlehem is on a steep hill. Downhill from Manger Square is the village of Beit Sahour (the infamous “Shepherds’ Fields”, though this title is greatly disputed), and beyond that, the dry flat farmland at the edge of the Jordan Valley.

Just 2 kilometers north, along next ridge over, is a dense forest of four-story homes: the illegal Har Homa settlement. Har Homa was once Abu Ghneim mountain, a pine forest owned by Palestinian villages including Beit Sahour. Israel illegally annexed the mountain in 1967 and for 30 years used the forest as part of its’ deceptive “green space” zonings. Under these zoning laws, Palestinians lose access to land annexed to Jerusalem and cannot legally build on privately owned lots.

In 1997, Israel began clearing Abu Ghneim of trees to make way for Har Homa, in which roughly 20,000 Israeli settlers now live. Then-Secretary of State Condeleeza Rice stated in 2007, “Har Homa is a settlement the United States has opposed from the very beginning." In November 2010, Israel announced plans to build 1000 additional housing units in Har Homa.

Uphill from Manger Square… well, the rest of this story is about what you can find uphill (mostly west and a little north) from the Church of the Nativity. Most immediately, chaos.

Along narrow cobblestone streets, shopkeepers display backpacks, jeans, hijab in wild patterns. Vendors fill the streets, pushing wheeled carts laden with boiling vats of salted beans, smoky peanut-roasting contraptions, and kenafe (a ludicrously sweet dessert sold from pans the size of coffee tables).

Nearby is the dimly-lit vegetable market, dusty and echoing with cries of “Khiyar! Khiyar! Khiyar!” and “Batinjan! A’arba shekel b’kilo!” It is here that teenage boys once offered me a ride in a shopping cart, laughing hysterically and racing the carts on (or rather, through) the market’s deep sawdust floor.

Continuing uphill beyond the vendors in traditional store-front businesses are newer parts of town. Bethlehem is a bustling city; a marketplace for the central West Bank and home to many a Western-esque shopping center.

Once while waiting for a friend on a crowded street corner, I watched a young boy selling goldfish out of a rectangular tank. The massive glass box, with magnified orange fish swimming nervously inside, was precariously balanced on milk crates, just a foot or two from vehicle traffic and in severe danger of being knocked by a rushed pedestrian.

Bethlehem is a center, and I mostly knew it as a place I needed to be to get somewhere else. We’d take a service (taxi-van) to Bethlehem from Ramallah and then walk or catch a taxi up the brutally steep Manger Street to the up-ridge village of Beit Jala. It was here that Israel has deigned to put the wall through a family’s front yard, and I spent two tragic rainy mornings watching bulldozer jaws munch centuries-old olive trees and a pink plastic playground. The wall (now built), separates the family’s house from Road #60, a highway which connects settlements in the West Bank.

During my time in the West Bank, Palestinian buses could drive on Highway 60, however this hasn’t always been the case. Travel is sometimes limited to Israeli settlers, as with many modern, well-paved and direct routes through the West Bank. Unequal access to highways and roads is commonly listed as an example of apartheid in practice. Palestinian access to Highway 60 can be cut off at any point.

From Beit Jala, one could (finally) reach the hill’s summit and catch the 1960’s decrepit bus to al Walaja, a farming village just 3 miles from Bethlehem. The village originally existed in a slightly different location, and all 1600 residents were forced to flee in 1948. Some 100 villagers began a “new al Walaja” nearby; the current village.

Located on the northwest-facing slope of Bethlehem’s giant hill, this is the village that is currently being walled off from its own farmland. Bulldozers are now (as of December 22) destroying a natural spring and Palestinian cemetery to make way for the wall. An Israeli checkpoint will control access in and out of al Walaja (to Bethlehem even).

The city of Jerusalem, clearly visible from the village’s steep north-facing sides, is off-limits to al Walaja residents. Although roughly half of the village’s land falls within Jerusalem Municipal boundaries, the people of al Walaja are considered West Bank residents and are denied entry to their capital city. In fact, over 45 houses built within the village have been demolished for “illegal construction”, according to East Jerusalem permit laws, although the village’s residents cannot apply for permits without East Jerusalem residency status.

In between Beit Jala and al Walaja is Har Gilo, an illegal settlement built partially on al Walaja land. Plans for further settlement construction threaten up to 60% more of remaining village land. There are currently 13 hotels under construction in Har Gilo, undoubtedly for tourists headed to Bethlehem.

South of al Walaja is one of the two checkpoints controlling access from Jerusalem to Bethlehem, “Tunnels checkpoint”. “Tunnels” is an apt name for the checkpoint terminal on Highway 60 (previously mentioned), which utilizes a number of tunnels to avoid crossing through Palestinian land, and in fact obscures the sight of West Bank villages. Tunnels are a frequently-used manner of segregating settlers from Palestinians. Hidden from sight.

Internationals could (inexplicably) cross through Tunnels checkpoint on certain Sundays. The only way to find out if this was such a Sunday was to take the bus to the checkpoint, possibly be turned back, and have to hitchhike to the center of Bethlehem for a trek north to the second checkpoint. Sometimes we’d have luck getting through on other days of the week; my impression is that “arbitrary” is the intentional law of the land at checkpoints.

Our willingness to test Tunnels was due to the location of the second checkpoint to Jerusalem, “Rachel’s Tomb checkpoint”. From the center of Bethlehem, one had to take a taxi or walk (as cash-strapped ISM volunteers generally opted to do) for a good 30-40 minutes north out of the city. To be honest, these images are the ones that come to mind when I picture Bethlehem. The walk to “Rachel’s” stretches on, past litter-strewn lots and run-down falafel shops and out-of-place glossy markets presumably hoping for tourist traffic.

The road runs past Aida refugee camp, home to refugees of the 1948 forced expulsions. Some are even part of the estimated 90-95% of original al Walaja residents who were displaced. According to the UN, Aida’s more than 4700 residents have been squeezed into just .27 square miles. Unemployment has reached 43%. Aida is the only refugee camp I visited; we gathered there for a meeting once. Concrete walls lining the camp’s roadways are covered in murals. I remember seeing a map with historic Palestine, labeled with Palestinian cities this camp’s residents haven’t visited for 62 years. Jaffa. Haifa. Lydd.

Past Aida, a large wall meets the roadway. Towering 25 feet overhead, entire city blocks fall under its shadow in the afternoon. The wall has separated Bethlehem-region farmers from over 3,700 acres of farmland. Its top is lined with razor wire, in which plastic bags have snagged to form streamers of sorts. The wall is covered in handiwork. Quotes, names, graffiti. Giant wheat-paste pictures of people laughing. Murals stretching for 6 or 8 slabs of concrete. The wall is downhill from the road; from a block uphill you can see the scabs of settlements covering Jerusalem’s eastern slopes like clear-cuts in Washington forests. And beyond those settlements, a city practically nobody in Bethlehem can visit.

The wall wraps on forever. It seems I was always walking frantically, trying to catch the last bus to Jerusalem waiting on the checkpoint’s far side for a night shift in Sheikh Jarrah. The effect of walking briskly is to make the wall’s images seem like a film, like a steady stream of nonsensical expressions of anger and humor and the absurd. Someone had written “And Jesus wept” again and again at one part.

At another part, a mural depicts a clear-cut forest. In the midst of an expanse of tree stumps was a high circular wall, and within that wall was a Christmas tree bedecked with ornaments and a large star, branches protecting heaps of wrapped presents.

Beyond the faces and punctuation and Christmas tree mural is a 90 degree bend in the wall, which has collected in its corner a cluster of taxi drivers waiting for customers and a few vendors hawking watermelons and tomatoes. From here, a two-laned walkway runs right, parallel to the wall. The walkway is narrow; lined with wire grating. In morning rush-hour traffic, as the West Bank’s residents attempt to reach jobs in East Jerusalem or Israel, the line is backed up to the end of this chute.

The chute runs along the wall for good 300 yards. Then one passes soldiers behind bulletproof glass, who we could usually run past without being stopped, on virtue of our white skin. Then it’s through a series of concrete switchbacks lined with CCTV cameras; waiting for a series of turnstiles to turn; to take off one’s shoes and go through a metal detector; to wait for more turnstiles; to show one’s passport to another soldier behind bulletproof glass (again, they hardly cared about us); and then, at long last, we’d emerge on the Jerusalem side and, with any luck, catch the 124 bus into Jerusalem.

Tour buses coming from the Church of the Nativity, incidentally, pass though the wall on a different roadway. Tourists leaving Bethlehem never see Rachel’s checkpoint or Aida refugee camp; they’d have to be paying good attention to even notice the wall. Soldiers enter the tour buses to check passports and, without even having to disembark, tourists are on their way into Jerusalem.

My memories of Bethlehem are different than those of most tourists. When I picture Bethlehem, at best I remember a boy with goldfish and joking teenagers wheeling shopping-cart-taxi-services. At worst, I think of settlements built on top of forests; a wall trampling ancient olive groves and a children’s playground; refugee camps housing thousands of the West Bank’s most destitute; and a checkpoint system cutting Palestinians off from their capital city.

A typical Church of the Nativity tourist would approach Bethlehem via Highway 60 and a series of tunnels which obscure Palestinian villages. On a packaged tour, they would likely visit Gilo settlement to buy souvenirs and possibly stay at deluxe hotels run by Israeli settlers. Tourists disembark their tour buses outside of the Church of the Nativity, immediately re-board upon exiting, and re-enter Gilo or Israel without ever knowingly passing through a checkpoint or possibly even noticing the wall.

According to Khouloud Daibes, Palestinian tourism minister, two-thirds of tourists stay in Bethlehem for less than 2 hours, and the West Bank receives just 5% of tourism revenues. It’s estimated that between 15-30% of foreign tourists sleep in Bethlehem hotels. The rest patronize hotels in Israeli settlements or within Israel proper.

Although Bethlehem is technically in the West Bank, Palestine has been stripped from the tourist experience. The occupation is hidden from them, but so are the crowded marketplaces, opportunities to meet Palestinian shopkeepers and olivewood carvers, to capture even a small sense of where Bethlehem is. The Bethlehem region contains one of the highest percentages of Palestinian Christians, and their plight and culture are obscured from Christian visitors to the Holy Land.

A tourist could easily take a trip to Bethlehem without ever meeting a Palestinian. A typical Bethlehem tourist doesn’t even see many Palestinians.

Palestine is hidden from sight.

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