Media Microscope: Bethlehem blues

It must be Christmas: Bethlehem Mayor Anton Salman made misleading claims

In the highly competitive field of anti-Israel propaganda, the city of Bethlehem plays an outsized role. 

With media attention understandably focused at Christmas on Bethlehem as the traditional birthplace of Jesus, it gives propagandists a ready-made opportunity every year to present gift-wrapped boxes of anti-Israel messages in the hope an excited media will share them with the world.

One example was an Associated Press report that ran on the ABC website (Dec. 25) and in the Age, Canberra Times and Sydney Morning Herald (Dec. 26).

According to the story, “Palestinian Tourism Minister Rula Maaya said all Bethlehem hotels were fully booked, and the city was preparing to host an ‘astounding’ 10,000 tourists overnight. ‘We haven’t seen numbers like this in years,’ she said, adding that the 3 million visitors to Bethlehem this year exceeded last year’s count by hundreds of thousands”.

In 2017, 2.7 million people visited Bethlehem.

The article claimed, “The Christmas festivities traditionally bring a boost of holiday cheer to Christians in the Holy Land, whose numbers have shrunk over the decades and makeup just a small percentage of the local population.”

To the average reader, “Holy Land” would include Gaza, the West Bank and Israel. In which case, the claim “numbers have shrunk over the decades” is incorrect.

According to the Israeli Bureau of Statistics, there were 170,000 Christians living in sovereign Israeli territory in 2017. In 2009, there were 151,000. In other words, there is real and substantive demographic growth, not decline, in Israel.

But the numbers of Christians living under Palestinian self-rule tell a different story. In 2006, the year before Hamas seized control of Gaza, 5,000 Christians lived there, but today it is estimated only 1,000 remain. 

The story on the West Bank is similar. According to all reports, since the Palestinian Authority gained control of the city in 1995, the proportion of Christians in Bethlehem has dropped dramatically. The AP report did not include any of this. Instead, the report mentioned “occupation” and “Israel’s separation barrier” as problems for Christians. 

Readers were told Christmas 2017 in Bethlehem was spoiled by Palestinians rioting after US President Trump announced he would recognise Jerusalem as Israel’s capital. In fact, it was the Palestinian Authority that cancelled celebrations in protest. Even so, on Dec. 22 2017, Palestinian Tourism Ministry Public Relations Director Jeries Qumsieh was quoted saying, “We have not witnessed any cancellation since the Trump announcement and are 100 percent booked for Christmas Eve.”

The propaganda machine’s biggest Christmas gift was Mayor of Bethlehem Anton Salman’s op-ed in the Australian (Dec. 26). 

According to Salman, despite the 3 million visitors to Bethlehem in 2018 (whom he didn’t mention) “we still must go to great lengths to persuade people [to visit the Church of the Nativity]… Even more shocking, when we sought to list the church as a UNESCO world heritage site, some countries, succumbing to Israeli and US pressure, opposed the designation.”

Salman lamented that some Palestinians have “opted for immigration” but was comforted by the “thousands of Palestinians who have stayed in Bethlehem, despite the constant struggle.”

An AIJAC op-ed by Allon Lee run in the Australian (Jan. 2) accused Salman of falsely portraying Bethlehem as a “ghost town”. 

The article noted that, “Since the Palestinian Authority (PA) took over the city in 1995, the Christian percentage of the city’s population has plummeted from 40 per cent to 12 per cent. Salman hides the identity of those who have left – Christians – and those who remain and keep arriving in the city: Muslims. The city’s population of 27,000 in 2017 was 23 per cent higher than in 1998… This two-way migration is a mirror of the wider trends across the Middle East where Islamists in the Muslim majorities are threatening, bullying and attacking Christian minorities.”

The piece also challenged Salman’s claims the separation barrier “has been built through the heart of our city,” noting that it “lies north of the city’s limits and is there to ensure the right of Israelis not to be knifed, car rammed or exploded to death, which he conveniently ignores.”

On January 7, SBS TV “World News” reported the Greek Orthodox patriarch’s Bethlehem visit to celebrate Orthodox Christmas was marred by Palestinians demonstrating against his Church for the “alleged sale of East Jerusalem land to Jewish groups”.