Each holiday comes with various traditions, some long established and some more recent. One of the newer traditions of the Christmas season is that the media will feature reports about how hard Israel is making it to celebrate Christmas in Bethlehem. These reports used to feature shots of an empty chair with a keffiyeh at the midnight mass, to symbolise Yasser Arafat’s supposedly enforced absence. It never seemed to concern the media that, as a Muslim, missing Christmas was not such a great hardship for Arafat, or that Arafat was actually free to leave his compound, but chose not to because he knew the Israelis would move in and arrest all the terrorists he was sheltering there.
The Age this year featured a piece on Dec. 23 from the Guardian’s Rory McCarthy. McCarthy describes what he views as the simplest route from Nazareth to Bethlehem as taken, according to the New Testament, by Joseph and Mary. He explains that the route would be far harder to navigate today due mainly to Israeli restrictions, and he detours enough to take several unrelated and generally inaccurate swipes at Israel.
For example, he states, “The Green Line…is not shown in Israeli school textbooks.” This is no longer true, but it was not shown because the Green Line was only the armistice line at the end of Israel’s War of Independence, and is not a political boundary. In any case, surely it is far more relevant that Palestinian textbooks don’t even show Israel.
He describes in detail various checkpoints and the problems they cause Palestinians, inaccurately describes settlements as “considered illegal under international law” and complains about the “10 metre high Israeli security wall built around Bethlehem”. It is actually not around Bethlehem, but to one side of it.
The idea of tracing Mary and Joseph’s route to Bethlehem also appealed to SBS TV “News”, but interestingly their report of Dec. 26 had the famous couple travel not via the mountains of the West Bank and then Jerusalem, as McCarthy did, but through the Jordan River and then Jericho. However, the conclusion was the same. The route is blocked by Israel’s security fence, and “even Bethlehem, a Palestinian city, is cut off from nearby Jerusalem.” There was no explanation that this was because of the large number of suicide bombers and shooting attacks on Israeli neighbourhoods that had come out of Bethlehem.
Matt Brown’s reports on the ABC TV News refreshingly blamed not Israel but violence between the Palestinian factions for keeping the pilgrims away from Bethlehem. However, his story for “The 7.30 Report” on Dec. 21 took a different tone, attributing Bethlehem’s declining Christian population to the Israeli-Palestinian violence, the financial blockade of the Hamas run Palestinian Authority and the “wall”, which he claims “has been built on Palestinian land”. The land is more accurately described as disputed. He at least reports that Israel allows busloads of people into Bethlehem each day. (The Ministry of Tourism ran half-hourly complementary shuttles throughout the holiday.) Nonetheless, Lutheran Reverend Dr. Mitri Raheb, whom he interviewed, complained that Bethlehem was being “transformed … into one of the biggest open air prisons in the world.”
The same day, Peter Cave, hosting “AM” on ABC Radio, described Bethlehem as “a sad shell of a town” and stated, “Israel’s security wall has cut access to Bethlehem even for local Palestinian Christians.” David Hardaker, in his report, said that, in Bethlehem, “Christmas this year is no time for joy.” He cited among other reasons, “Israel’s recent war with Lebanon” (it was actually with Hezbollah) and “the impact of Israel’s separation wall,” properly known as a security barrier, “which has cut Bethlehem off from its spiritual neighbour Jerusalem.”
Broadening the scope considerably was Abe Ata, a Palestinian Christian now at the Australian Catholic University. Writing in the Age on Dec. 26, Ata claimed, “The Palestinian Christian is an endangered species. When the modern state of Israel was established there were about 400,000 of us. Two years ago the number was down to 80,000. Now it’s 60,000.” In fact, census data shows that there were 140,000 Christians in all of mandatory Palestine in 1945 and today Israel is home to 120,000 Arab Christians, up from 34,000 in 1949. Close to 40,000 more now live in the West Bank and Gaza, a number that is admittedly dwindling. Ata blames this on Israeli and US policies, but it is really due to the discrimination Palestinian Christians face from Palestinian Muslims, as evidenced by the fact that Christian emigration greatly accelerated after the Palestinians began administering Gaza and the West Bank. In 1995, for example, Christians comprised nearly 60% of Bethlehem’s population. Now it’s 25,000 out of 150,000. Perhaps that’s the real story.