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Tuesday, December 11, 2007

Bethlehem, 2007

Michael Gove in the Times (UK) mentions:
There’s one invariable sign that Christmas is almost upon us – a story about how Bethlehem is suffering at the hands of wicked Israel.

This year we’ve already had our first exercise in demonising Israel for its treatment of Bethlehem with the graffiti artist Banksy enjoying extensive coverage for his trip to decorate the security barrier near the town with his work. The message of Banksy’s work and the coverage it has generated is the same: oppressive Israel has snuffed the life out of the town where the Prince of Peace was born. Herod’s spirit lives on, even as the spirit of Christmas is struggling to survive.

The truth is very different. The parlous position of Palestinian Christians, indeed the difficult position of most Christians across the Arab world, is a consequence not of Israeli aggression but of growing Islamist influence. Israel goes out of its way to honour sites and traditions sacred to other faiths while the radicals who are driving Palestinian politics seek to create an Islamist state in which other faiths, if they survive at all, do so with the explicit subject status of dhimmis. But when it comes to Israel’s position in these matters it’s still a case of O little town of Bethlehem, how still we see them lie.

He is right, of course. Christians have been abandoning Bethlehem for decades, and the intifada has only accelerated their exodus:
In Bethlehem, the birthplace of Jesus, the Christian exodus has been most acute. In 1990, 60 percent of the population there was Christian. Today, some estimates say 20 percent or less of the city's population is Christian.

Tens of thousands of Arab Christians have fled the West Bank and Gaza Strip over the years. An estimated one thousand Christians have left Bethlehem each year for the last seven years -- a period covering the Palestinian uprising. There are between 10,000 and 13,000 Christians remaining in the city.

Today, only 1.5 percent of the population in the West Bank and Gaza Strip is Christian.
This doesn't stop Bethlehem's Christian mayor from blaming Israel:
"The cradle of our Lord Jesus Christ has turned into a big prison," the mayor said.

"This discriminating wall, besides isolating our town from the outside world and depriving Bethlehem from any future growth, snakes its way deep inside our municipal borders... closing the historic and main entrance of Bethlehem."

The barrier has devastated Palestinian farmers, the mayor said, confiscating 7,000 dunums (about 700 acres or 280 hectares) of arable land, making the lives of Palestinians "almost impossible" and putting them in "ghettos".
Yet amazingly, Bethlehem's population continues to grow even as the Christians flee:

Locality Name

Mid-Year Population in
2004 2005 2006
Bethlehem (Beit Lahm) 28,111 29,019 29,927

Somehow, according to Israel's critics, the horrible separation barrier is only effective in forcing Christians to leave Bethlehem but it causes Muslims to increase.

See also previous post: Guess who's stealing land?

Meryl also weighs in on the issue.