Christmas Eve in Bethlehem

by NEVE GORDON

Jerusalem. At around 9:00 am, the first fifty Israelis passed the military checkpoint and climbed over the dirt barricade. They were entering Bethlehem, which is considered “Area A” of the Palestinian territories and therefore out of bounds for Israeli citizens.

Determined to meet their Palestinian partners, these Israelis, members of Ta’ayush, Arab-Jewish Partnership, had decided to defy the law. Christmas Eve, they thought, was a suitable day for an act of civil disobedience.

In August, Ta’ayush members had attempted to walk from Jerusalem to Bethlehem, but, when they reached the checkpoint, they were brutally beaten by the Israeli police who used water cannons and clubs to disperse the crowd. On December 24, the activists entered in a roundabout way in order to ensure that this time around a solidarity meeting would indeed take place.

Bethlehem’s month-long curfew had been lifted the day before, but the city was in no mood to celebrate. Children had been locked up in their homes for weeks, parents had not gone to work, and access to medical facilities had been obstructed. Scores of residents had been imprisoned, houses had been demolished, and many streets and sidewalks had been turned to rubble due to tanks, armored vehicles and bulldozers.

As they made their way from the barricade to the Church of Nativity Square, the activists were shocked to see that Bethlehem, which had had a complete makeover just three years earlier, was in ruins.

The Square boasted no Christmas tree; there were no lights and no banners marking the sacred day. It was clear that this was not to be a joyous holiday.

At around noon, a second group of approximately 200 Israelis and fifty French citizens met at checkpoint 300, the major entrance to Bethlehem from Jerusalem.

Immediately after the Latin patriarch’s convoy passed through the checkpoint, at around 12:30 p.m., the Israelis marched forward and demanded that the Israeli military make way so that they could enter Bethlehem. They brought toys for the Palestinian children with them, a symbolic gesture meant to brighten just a tiny little bit the days of those who have lost their childhood. They also had a truckload of basic foodstuffs for the needy, knowing that over 60 percent of Palestinian families live on $2 a day.

Probably because the eyes of world were watching (scores of TV crews were covering the patriarch’s convoy), the police decided not to interfere and allowed the Ta’ayush members to cross the checkpoint. The protesters took out signs — “Happy Christmas? Without Oppression!”; “Peace, Security and Liberty For the two Peoples”; “Dismantle the Settlements and Make Peace” — and began marching the two kilometers to the Church of Nativity Square, chanting: “Down with the Occupation! Down with the Occupation!” in Arabic and Hebrew.

Residents of Bethlehem joined the marching crowd, and together they entered the square where they were met by hundreds of Palestinians as well as by the activists who had arrived earlier.

It was an electrifying moment.

In the midst of the bloody conflict and merely a day after the harsh curfew had been lifted, hundreds of Moslems, Jews, and Christians, Israelis, Palestinians and Internationals stood side-by-side demanding an end to the occupation.

The very existence of such a protest undermines the Israeli government’s claim that there is no partner with whom to negotiate, and demonstrated once again that the two peoples have a common cause.

All of the TV crews witnessed the event, and many of them even filmed it. Yet, while the Arab Al-Jazeera and Abu-Dabi stations broadcasted the demonstration throughout the day, CNN, BBC, Skynews and the like decided not to report about this precious moment of Jewish-Arab solidarity.

Most astonishing was the Israeli press, which made nothing of the protest, begging the question of why two hundred and fifty Israelis standing together with hundreds of Palestinians in the middle of Bethlehem — in an act of civil disobedience — was not considered newsworthy.

The answer is straightforward: the demonstration disrupts the picture the Israeli government and media have been attempting to paint over the past two years. If the protest had been covered, the Israeli viewer would have had to confront the fact that the occupied Palestinians are not the bloodthirsty terrorists they are frequently portrayed to be, that all they are demanding is an end to the occupation, and that Palestinians and Israelis can work together towards achieving this goal.

To be sure, such a picture would have probably created a dissonance among many Israelis who have been subjected to incessant propaganda and incitement against Palestinians. Nonetheless, it is precisely this type of dissonance that is most needed in Israel if we are to break the current bloody impasse: to show the public that a different, more humane and peaceful route is possible.

When the religious ceremonies ended, the Israeli government re-implemented the curfew, knowing that the TV crews had left the city and no one would document the return of the oppressive regime. In this cynical world, two days of freedom are apparently enough.

NEVE GORDON teaches politics at Ben-Gurion University, Israel, and is a contributor to The Other Israel: Voices of Refusal and Dissent. (New Press 2002). He can be reached at ngordon@bgumail.bgu.ac.il

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