O Little Town of Bethlehem Today

By Ron Forthofer

During Christmas time, the town of Bethlehem in the West Bank, the birthplace of Jesus, comes to mind. I wonder what Jesus would think were he to return to Bethlehem, to Jerusalem and to the rest of the West Bank today. Unfortunately, he would still see a foreign military force occupying the land. Since Jesus had experienced the Roman occupation when he was alive, he might not be too surprised about the occupation.

However, Jesus would also see something he had not witnessed under the Romans. The current foreign power, Israel, has now colonized much of the West Bank (including East Jerusalem) and there are about 500,000 Israeli colonists living in over 200 illegal Jewish-only colonies and outposts on lands taken from the Palestinians.

(The website www.ifamericansknew.org provides some additional details about what Jesus would observe in Bethlehem today.)

"Towering walls and militarized fences now encircle Bethlehem, turning the 4,000-year-old city into a virtual prison for its Palestinian Christian and Muslim citizens. Bethlehem has only three gates to the outside world, all tightly controlled by Israeli occupation forces.

"Israel has confiscated almost all the agricultural land in the area for illegal settlements, making it impossible for many Palestinian farmers to continue tending their land. Outside the town, the fields where shepherds once watched their flocks are being filled by Israeli housing blocs and roads barred to the descendants of those shepherds.

"’It is unconscionable that Bethlehem should be allowed to die slowly from strangulation,’ says South African Archbishop Desmond Tutu. Bethlehem’s residents increasingly are fleeing Israel’s confining walls, and soon the city, home to the oldest Christian community in the world, will have little left of its Christian history but the cold stones of empty churches."

Jesus would observe that Palestinians in the West Bank are prohibited from entering Jerusalem, thus preventing them from worshipping at their holy sites. He would see that travel is also problematic between Palestinian cities and towns due to the presence of hundreds of Israeli roadblocks, military checkpoints and other obstacles. Thus Palestinians find it hard to conduct commerce, leading to increased unemployment and poverty. For Palestinians, it is also difficult to access medical care or to go to schools that may be located in a neighboring community. Palestinians are forced to travel on narrow and often unpaved roads since they are not allowed on the modern Jewish-only highways that Israel built in the West Bank. In addition, travel between Gaza and the West Bank is nearly impossible for Palestinians mainly due to the Israeli blockade of Gaza.

Water shortage represents a crisis for Palestinians in Bethlehem as well as in the rest of the West Bank and Gaza. Amnesty International issued an extensive report in October 2009 on this Israeli-caused disaster. Donatella Rovera, Amnesty International’s researcher on Israel and the OPT (Occupied Palestinian Territories), said: "Israel allows the Palestinians access to only a fraction of the shared water resources, which lie mostly in the occupied West Bank, while the unlawful Israeli settlements there receive virtually unlimited supplies. In Gaza the Israeli blockade has made an already dire situation worse."

Amnesty reported that Palestinians’ water consumption in the West Bank barely reaches 70 liters a day per person, well under the World Health Organization’s recommended minimum of 100 liters a day. Israelis consume over 4 times as much water as the Palestinians.

The Amnesty Report added: "In some rural communities Palestinians survive on far less than even the average 70 litres, in some cases barely 20 litres per day, the minimum amount recommended by the WHO for emergency situations response.

The stark reality of this inequitable system is that, today, more than 40 years after Israel occupied the West Bank, some 180,000 — 200,000 Palestinians living in rural communities there have no access to running water and even in towns and villages which are connected to the water network, the taps often run dry."

In an associated news article, Amnesty also pointed out that, in contrast, "Israeli settlers, who live in the West Bank in violation of international law, have intensive-irrigation farms, lush gardens and swimming pools."

This description covers only a little of what Jesus might see in Bethlehem today. Sadly, this situation doesn’t live up to the ideas of peace on earth and goodwill to men. Neither do the horrific situations in Iraq and Afghanistan and many other places. Clearly much work remains to be done before peace on earth and goodwill to men are a reality.

– Ron Forthofer is a retired professor of biostatistics. He contributed this article to PalestineChronicle.com.

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