By Michael Finkel
little town where Jesus was born is now one of the most
contentious places on Earth.
not how Mary and Joseph came into Bethlehem, but this is how
you enter now. You wait at the wall. It's a daunting concrete
barricade, three stories high, thorned with razor wire.
Standing beside it, you feel as if you're at the base of a
dam. Israeli soldiers armed with assault rifles examine your
papers. They search your vehicle. No Israeli civilian, by
military order, is allowed in. And few Bethlehem residents are
permitted out—the reason the wall exists here, according to
the Israeli government, is to keep terrorists away from
Bethlehem and Jerusalem are only six miles apart (ten
kilometers), though in the compressed and fractious geography
of the region, this places them in different realms. It can
take a month for a postcard to go from one city to the other.
Bethlehem is in the West Bank, on land taken by Israel during
the Six Day War of 1967. It's a Palestinian city; the majority
of its 35,000 residents are Muslim. In 1900, more than 90
percent of the city was Christian. Today Bethlehem is only
about one-third Christian, and this proportion is steadily
shrinking as Christians leave for Europe or the Americas. At
least a dozen suicide bombers have come from the city and
surrounding district. The truth is that Bethlehem, the "little
town" venerated during Christmas, is one of the most
contentious places on Earth.
If you're cleared to enter, a sliding steel door, like that on
a boxcar, grinds open. The soldiers step aside, and you drive
through the temporary gap in the wall. Then the door slides
back, squealing on its track, booming shut. You're in
The city, at the scrabbly hem of the Judaean desert, is built
over several broad, flat-topped hills, stingy with vegetation.
The older homes are made of pale yellow stone, wedged along
steep, narrow streets. A couple of battered taxis ply the
roads, drivers heavy on the horns. At an outdoor stall, lamb
meat rotates on a spit, dripping fat. Men sit on plastic
chairs and sip from small glasses of thick Arabic coffee.
There's an odor of uncollected garbage. As you work your way
up the hill, you can see the scope of the wall and chart its
ongoing expansion—a gray snake, segmented by cylindrical guard
towers, methodically constricting the city.
Inside the wall, along Bethlehem's borders, are three
Palestinian refugee camps, boxy apartments heaped atop one
another in haphazard piles. Every breeze through the camps'
alleys ruffles the corners of hundreds of martyrs'
posters—young men, staring impassively, some gripping M-16s.
Many are victims of the Israel Defense Forces. Others have
blown themselves up in an Israeli mall or restaurant or bus.
Arabic text on the posters extols the greatness of these
Just outside the wall, dominating the surrounding high points
and ridges, are sprawling Jewish settlements, skewered with
construction cranes, feverishly growing. Late in the afternoon
the sun glints off the settlement buildings and Bethlehem
seems circled by fire.
summit of Bethlehem's central hill is Manger Square, a
cobblestoned plaza fronting the Church of the Nativity. The
tallest and most prominent structure here is a mosque. Many of
the gift shops are shuttered, relics of a more peaceful time.
Tourism is low; religious pilgrims are shuttled in and out by
guides—a quick stop at Manger Square, then a speedy departure
down the hill and back out through the wall, returning to
Jerusalem. Hotels are mostly empty. Few visitors spend the
night. Unemployment in Bethlehem, by the mayor's estimate, is
50 percent, and many families are living from meal to meal.
The Church of the Nativity is almost hidden. It looks like a
stone fortress, walls several feet thick, with a facade devoid
of ornamentation. Perhaps this is why it has survived 14
centuries: Bethlehem is no place for delicate architecture. A
spot at the crossroads of the world—the busy intersection of
Europe, Asia, and Africa—means a perpetual rush hour of
invading armies. The church has endured conquests by Persian,
Byzantine, Muslim, Crusader, Mamluk, Ottoman, Jordanian,
British, and Israeli forces. The entrance, reduced in size
over the centuries, perhaps to prevent access by travelers'
horses and camels, has shrunk to a miniature hole. You nearly
have to fold yourself in half to get through.
The interior of the church, cool and dark, is as spare as the
outside; four rows of columns in an open nave lead to the main
altar. There are no pews, just a collection of cheap folding
chairs. But beneath the altar, down a set of worn limestone
steps, is a small cave. In the rural areas of Bethlehem, today
as it was 2,000 years ago, grottoes are used as livestock
pens. Mangers are carved out of rock. Here, in the bull's-eye
of this volatile place, ringed by Jewish settlements,
imprisoned within a wall, encircled by refugee camps, hidden
amid a forest of minarets, tucked below the floor of an
ancient church, is a silver star. This, it's believed, is
where Jesus was born.
Some of the people you meet around Bethlehem quote from the
Bible, some recite from the Koran, some chant from the Torah.
Some show you their fields, some point to their olive groves;
some invoke history, some envision the future. Some pray with
knees on the ground, some with foreheads on the ground, some
with feet firmly planted but with torsos turning and swaying.
Some throw stones and some drive tanks and some wrap
themselves with explosives. But when you get right down to it,
when you boil away the hatred and the politics and the wars
that have shaken the planet, the one thing most people are
talking about, when it comes to Bethlehem, is land. A tiny
scrap of land. A wind-scoured, water-starved, rock-strewn bit
The Jews got here first. That's what the rabbi says. Rabbi
Menachem Froman lives in the Jewish settlement of Tekoa,
perched on a mesa, a clean collection of bleached stone houses
capped with red-tiled roofs, double strollers parked on
several porches. Fifteen hundred people live here. From the
north side of Tekoa, Froman can view all of Bethlehem; the
Muslim call to prayer drifts over the settlement five times a
day, steady as a train schedule. To the south are the bald
brown knolls of the Judaean wilderness, where Jesus is thought
to have fasted for 40 days, and the deep ravines that tumble
down, down, down, falling below sea level—even the terrain
here seems to defy reason—and then plunging still, to Earth's
lowest point, the Dead Sea.
"This is not just land," says Froman, his long white beard
spilling from his chin, unruly as a river rapid. "This is the
Holy Land. There's no oil, no gold, no diamonds. It's a
desert! But this is God's palace." Froman is 62 years old; he
can count back 17 generations of rabbis in his family. He's
the 18th. His son is also a rabbi.
born in what is now Israel but was then, during World War II,
known as the British Mandate for Palestine (the British began
governing the region in 1922, following the collapse of the
Ottoman Empire). After World War II, in the wake of the
Holocaust, the United Nations voted to partition the region
into two states—one Jewish, one Arab. Jews accepted the plan,
Arabs did not. Fighting between Arabs and Jews began even
before Israel declared independence, in 1948, and the ensuing
war resulted in about 750,000 Palestinians fleeing their
native villages, many of them forced to do so by the Israeli
army. Many relocated to the West Bank of the Jordan River,
administered by Jordan, or the Gaza Strip, governed by Egypt.
These were the first Palestinian refugees.
Then, in 1967, Israel defeated the military forces of Egypt,
Jordan, Syria, Iraq, and Lebanon in six chaotic days and
occupied, among other lands, the West Bank, a place many
Israelis refer to by its biblical name, Judaea and Samaria.
This initiated the settlement movement—Jews establishing
homesites throughout the newly won territory.
Froman was one of the first to go. He believes, as do many
settlers, that the Jews' deed to Judaea and Samaria is spelled
out in the Old Testament. They are the landlords. Froman
therefore feels he has the right, granted from God, to live
here. In the district of Bethlehem, which includes the city
and neighboring villages, there are about 180,000
Palestinians, of whom 25,000 or so are Christian (virtually
all living in urban Bethlehem and two satellite towns, Beit
Jala and Beit Sahur). Woven into this map are 22 Jewish
settlements, with a population approaching 80,000, and at
least a dozen more frontier-style squatter encampments known
as outposts, often no more than a ring of dilapidated mobile
homes, like Conestoga wagons around a campfire.
Just looking out his window in Tekoa, Froman sees why everyone
craves a piece of this land. For Jews still awaiting their
Messiah, Froman says it's possible that he will arrive right
here, in the eroded backcountry of Bethlehem, the presence of
God palpable in the desert's sandpaper wind. For Christians
anticipating their Messiah's return, why shouldn't he come
back to the spot he was born? Muslims do not believe in a
messiah—there is only Allah, only God—but Palestinian Muslims
also revere this land as sacred, since Jesus is one of their
prophets. Also Bethlehem and the surrounding West Bank, as
well as the Gaza Strip and Jerusalem, are where they hope to
establish a viable homeland.
The United Nations, the European Union, and the International
Court of Justice have declared the Israeli settlements
illegal, a violation of the Geneva Convention that prohibits
occupying powers from allowing its citizens to populate the
territory it occupies. The Israeli government, though,
provides easy loans to those seeking houses in West Bank
settlements. One of the largest in the Bethlehem area is
called Har Homa. Its gleaming high-rises stand so close to
Bethlehem—just across the wall—that it seems as if you could
hold your arm out on a Palestinian street corner and hail a
cab in Har Homa. It has become a full-fledged suburb, with
2,000 Israelis. About half of all settlers consider themselves
nonreligious, and real estate ads in Har Homa, plastered on
numerous billboards, stress the town's secular advantages.
Reasonable prices; great location; such an easy commute to
Jerusalem! Har Homa exemplifies an Israeli strategy known as
"facts on the ground": The more Jews who live in a
concentrated area on the east side of the so-called Green
Line—the armistice line established in 1949 following Israel's
war of independence—the more likely the area will become part
of Israel if the region is divided into two countries.
Palestinians still refer to Har Homa by its original name,
Jabal Abu Ghuneim—in Arabic, "mountain of the shepherd." It
used to be one of the last open spaces in Bethlehem, a
pine-shaded hillside where shepherds tended their flocks, and
had done so since biblical times. Construction began in 1997;
the land was shaved flat and stacked with apartment towers.
Not one Palestinian who owned acreage was compensated. Its new
name means "walled mountain" in Hebrew.
settlements are designed to feel like safe, suburban oases,
but they are not. The presence of settlers, so close to
Palestinian towns, makes them a target of particularly fierce
enmity. Stones once shattered car windshields so often that
many settlers replaced the glass in their vehicles with
rock-resistant plastic. Before the wall was built, stray
bullets, fired from below, sometimes burst into homes. In the
settlement of Efrat, a few hills over from Tekoa, one suicide
bomber detonated his bomb inside the medical center. Another
was shot to death as he was about to blow himself up in the
settlement's supermarket. He was killed not by a soldier but
by a settler.
"Our children have been to more funerals than most people have
been to in their whole lives," says Sara Bedein, a mother of
six who lives in Efrat. "All my kids have friends, neighbors,
classmates who have been killed." Bedein wears a bright scarf
on her head—Orthodox Jewish women, like traditional Muslims,
do not display their hair in public. She says that, after one
school-bus bombing tore off the legs of three young students
and killed two teachers, her daughter and schoolmates began
sitting cross-legged on the bus, believing it would reduce the
chance of losing limbs in an attack. And yet, if you ask
Bedein why her family doesn't move out of the occupied
territory, she answers immediately and unequivocally: "We love
it here." She loves the views, the mountain air, the settlers'
tight sense of community.
Many settlers keep sidearms strapped to their waists, sheriffs
in their own Wild West. Some even carry weapons to synagogue,
and while praying, while raising their arms, beseeching God,
it's clear that any protection they seek is not solely divine:
There is the unmistakable glint of a handgun snapped into a
When Seth Mandell takes a short walk in the wilderness, he
carries his nine-millimeter Glock in a fanny pack. Mandell
lives in Tekoa, a couple of streets away from Rabbi Froman.
His hike has become a ritual of grief. He works his way down a
steep, slippery trail, speckled with scarlet wildflowers,
bursts of color in the dun desertscape. A few doves circle
above. Doves in the sky; olive branches beneath.
Mandell is heading toward a small grotto, a tranquil spot
where, he says, monks have come to meditate since the fifth
century. No surprise that a 13-year-old boy was inspired to
explore. The boy was Koby Mandell, Seth's son. He cut school
one day, in May 2001, with his 14-year-old friend Yosef
Ishran, also from Tekoa. They hung out in this low-ceilinged
cave. Perhaps they sat in the cool shade and looked out the
entrance: a spectacular view of a rocky canyon, the walls
dropping sere and still into a dry riverbed below.
When night fell and the boys had not returned home, searches
were initiated. Soldiers arrived. The next morning, Koby and
Yosef were found in the cave. They had been bludgeoned to
death with stones. The walls of the cave were smeared with
their blood. Next to the bodies lay their lunch bags, with
uneaten sandwiches and bottles of water. The killers were
never caught. The pain Seth Mandell feels when he walks down
here seems to emanate from him like heat waves off a sidewalk.
But Mandell says that he and his family—his wife and their
three other children—have no plans to leave. He says what
Rabbi Froman says. He says what many settlers say. His
connection to this land is spiritually, emotionally, and
culturally profound. "Leaving," he says, "would be leaving a
part of myself behind."
thousand years before Christ was born, Bethlehem was known as
the City of David. It was the birthplace of King David, a
Jewish leader who earned his esteem through a famous fight: He
defeated Goliath, striking him dead with a stone flung from
his sling. The giant, whose height, according to the Old
Testament, "was six cubits and a span"—about ten feet (3
meters)—was a member of the Philistine people, ancient enemy
of the Jews. From the word "Philistine" has derived the
current Palestinian, though the two are linked only
etymologically, not by blood.
Though rarely in power, the Jews were the most populous group
in the region for centuries. But by the first century A.D.,
following a series of ineffective rulers and defeats by the
Roman army, they were cast out of the Holy Land. For the next
2,000 years, the Jews scattered throughout the world—the
Diaspora—but they never stopped praying for a return to their
In the meantime, Christianity rose to prominence. It seems a
fluke that Jesus was born in Bethlehem—after all, he's Jesus
of Nazareth, a town 90 miles (140 kilometers) to the north.
Some archaeologists and theological historians have their
doubts about many of the details of the Christmas story,
including that Jesus was born in Bethlehem of Judaea. There is
a small village, also called Bethlehem, located closer to
Nazareth, where some believe Jesus was actually born. (In
Hebrew, the name Bethlehem means "house of bread," and could
refer to almost any place with a flour mill.)
But according to the New Testament, in the Book of Luke, the
Roman emperor at the time, Caesar Augustus, was conducting a
census that required all people to return to their hometowns
to register. Joseph was a descendant of King David, and even
though his wife was nearing the end of her pregnancy, they
completed the journey to Bethlehem. Famously, the Book of Luke
relates, "there was no room for them in the Inn," so Jesus was
born amid the livestock, perhaps in the grotto over which the
Church of the Nativity was eventually built.
Judaea's ruler, King Herod, was so disturbed by reports that a
new king and potential rival had been born that, according to
the Book of Matthew, he sent troops to kill all boys under age
two. Mary and Joseph escaped with Jesus to Egypt, but
thousands of children were reported to have been slaughtered.
By the fourth century, Christianity was the official religion
of the Roman Empire, and Bethlehem swiftly became one of its
holiest sites. In 326, Helena, the mother of the first
Christian emperor, Constantine, traveled to Bethlehem and
shortly thereafter her son commissioned the construction of
the original Church of the Nativity. (It was destroyed during
a riot 200 years later, but was promptly rebuilt. The second
version, finished in the mid-sixth century, still stands.)
Helena's visit and a flow of imperial money sparked an influx
of pilgrims, and soon there were dozens of monasteries in the
nearby desert. Then the Muslims arrived. Early in the seventh
century, a merchant named Muhammad, living in Mecca in what is
now Saudi Arabia, heard a voice he believed to be that of the
angel Gabriel tell him, "Recite." Muhammad com- mitted to
memory the words that followed, and these revelations became
the Koran, the Arabic word for "recitation." Within a century
of Muhammad's death in 632, the religion he founded—Islam—had
spread throughout the Middle East.
For centuries Bethlehem remained a Christian island in a
steadily expanding Muslim sea. Palestinian refugees from the
1948 war brought even more Muslims to the area, but Bethlehem
remained a majority Christian town. Then, in 1967, Israel's
victory once again altered the city's complexion. Jewish
settlers began moving into the occupied West Bank; Christians,
who'd started fleeing to safer lands during World War II,
accelerated their exodus; and Palestinian militants initiated
attacks on military and civilian targets. In the same region
where Jews once battled Philistines, it was now Israelis
against Palestinians. In 3,000 years, the only change, it
appears, is a couple of syllables.
all semblance of normalcy was erased, the Al-Amal restaurant,
just off Manger Square, was often filled with Jewish diners.
They came for the falafel, seasoned with tahini and parsley,
and the fresh shawarma sandwiches, the lamb meat tucked into a
hot pita. Jews also came to shop in Bethlehem, known for
producing the area's finest vegetables.
But the Israeli occupation felt, to Palestinians, like a
series of humiliations—a proud people reduced to dependency on
their hated foe, at the mercy of Israel's military law, denied
an airport, and forced to pay taxes to the occupation
authority. In 1987, after two decades of such treatment, an
intifada, or uprising, was launched (the word literally
translates as "shaking off"). Young Palestinians hurled stones
at Israeli tanks, a modern version of David and Goliath, with
the roles reversed.
The intifada pushed the two sides to the bargaining table, and
the Oslo Accords were signed in 1993. But both Israelis and
Palestinians felt the provisions were not honored by the other
side. In 2000, a second Palestinian uprising began, this one
more brutal. Settlers were repeatedly targeted; suicide
bombers struck with increasing frequency. Israeli forces
shelled Palestinian towns, and settlers attacked Palestinian
villagers and farmers. Two years later, the Israelis began
building the barrier. Now, the only Jews who regularly enter
Bethlehem are soldiers, in armored vehicles, weapons at the
The owner of Al-Amal restaurant is a 53-year-old Muslim named
Omar Shawrieh, a short man with a trimmed beard and eyes
weighed down by heavy bags. The most prominent decoration in
his restaurant is a martyr's poster: a curly-haired young boy
in a light-blue polo shirt. "He's wearing his school uniform,"
says Shawrieh. It's his son.
Last fall, the Israeli army entered Manger Square on a mission
to apprehend a wanted militant. The soldiers traveled in a
large convoy—a dozen armored jeeps and a platoon of troops. It
was early afternoon. Mohammed Shawrieh, 13 years old, stopped
by his father's restaurant to get money for a haircut. The
soldiers' presence sparked the usual commotion; several people
began throwing rocks at them, then the violence escalated and
shots were fired.
Mohammed was curious, and he wandered across Manger Square. As
soon as he noticed him missing, Omar panicked. "I ran to find
my son," he says. "But they got to him before I got to him."
Mohammed was shot in the side, a bullet piercing his liver. By
the time he arrived at the hospital, he had bled to death.
The Israel Defense Forces acknowledge the boy was shot. "We
were in the midst of a pinpoint operation, to arrest a
most-wanted terrorist," says Aviv Feigel, a lieutenant colonel
with the IDF. "It was very intense." Molotov cocktails and
grenades, says Feigel, were launched at the soldiers. A few
were injured. So they fired back. "Maybe that boy was just
watching," says Feigel. "Or maybe he was participating. We
didn't investigate. It's a complicated situation; it's not a
classic battlefield. With them, everyone is in civilian
clothes." Mohammed Shawrieh was buried the next day in a
cemetery outside Bethlehem, in the shadow of an almond tree.
This was followed by a demonstration and the wide distribution
of his martyr's poster. Later, a plaque was placed at the spot
he was shot, near the Church of the Nativity, just outside the
crypts where bones of the children killed by King Herod, some
2,000 years ago, are believed to be kept. The blame game is
cyclical. Omar Shawrieh, of course, faults the heavy-handed
tactics of the Israeli army; their quickness to shoot, their
disregard for Palestinian lives.
Israeli army says that if terrorists weren't trying to kill
them, then soldiers would not have entered Manger Square in
the first place. Since the start of the first intifada, more
than 5,600 Palestinians and 1,200 Israelis have been killed.
Moderates do exist in the region, thousands of Jews, Muslims,
and Christians who wish to forge bonds and work for peace. But
the circumstances in Bethlehem are so fraught that even the
most minor efforts—an Arab village attempting to sell produce
to an Israeli town; the local Palestinian university trying to
host a Jewish lecturer—are stymied by the ugly realities.
Interactions between Palestinians and Israelis have mainly
been reduced to brief exchanges at fortified checkpoints;
often the Israeli soldiers are sealed inside bulletproof
booths, the glass so thick the soldiers appear blurred.
No place harbors more frustration than the refugee camps,
where families who were uprooted from their homes when Israel
became a nation still live—generation after generation stuck
in a stateless limbo. Ask where they're from, and they'll tell
you the name of a town that's likely been erased from Israel's
map, and speak in elegiac tones of its crystalline waters and
verdant fields. Some display sets of rusty keys that once
unlocked houses their parents or grandparents lived in before
"Everybody in camp hates the Jews," says 28-year-old Adel
Faraj, the owner of a tiny shop in the Duheisha Camp, at the
base of the Bethlehem hills. More than 10,000 people live in
the camp's half-square-mile block. The camp's alleys, tight as
slot canyons, are a collage of militant graffiti. Children run
amid shattered glass. Sewage trickles down open gutters. At
least two suicide bombers have come from Duheisha, one of them
a young woman.
Faraj sells toiletries and lamps and compact discs. He has a
narrow face and curly hair, which he likes to gel, and
expressive eyes canopied with dark brows. He keeps a water
pipe, called a narghile, in his shop and smokes apple-flavored
tobacco throughout the day. "If a Jew came walking into this
camp, he'd be killed. With a rock. Or a knife. Or a gun. It
doesn't matter who he was. A Jew is a Jew," says Faraj.
"My friend was a suicide bomber," he continues, exhaling,
filling his store with smoke. Faraj's friend was Mohammad
Daraghmeh, 18 years old, who blew himself up in March 2002
next to a synagogue in Jerusalem, killing 11, including two
infants and a toddler in a stroller. As Faraj speaks, he puts
a CD in his boom- box. It's Bob Marley. The first track plays:
"Is This Love?"
"I'm proud of him," says Faraj of his suicide bomber friend.
"He did something great. The Israelis have forced us into this
situation. They have left us with nothing. And when you have
nothing, you have nothing to lose."
o'clock in the morning most weekdays, several hundred men who
do have something to lose—wives, children—begin lining up on
the Bethlehem side of the wall. They're seeking work in Israel
proper. They stand inside a long steel cage, like a cattle
chute, waiting to be searched and prodded and fingerprinted
and metal-detected. Some are told to strip. The process can
take more than two hours. To be allowed through the
checkpoint, you must be married and have one or more children.
This, the Israeli army hopes, will ensure the laborers'
Many of the men are construction workers—often in the
settlements. They wait in line for hours to build houses for
their enemies on land that used to belong to them. They're
paid $35 a day. Then they return home through the wall.
"Do you think we want to do this?" says one of the men,
35-year-old Sufian Sabateen. He holds a paper bag containing
hummus and bread. He's smoking an L&M cigarette. His face, lit
harshly by the klieg lights of the wall, is stoic. It's an
hour before dawn. Sabateen insists he'd gladly work in
Bethlehem for half the salary, but there are no jobs. This is
how he describes his week: "From the mattress to work, from
work to the mattress. My life is no life."
The wall, Palestinians say, suffocates an entire population
for the actions of a small minority. They believe it is an
Israeli attempt to establish a new national border, sealing
onto the Israeli side all the choicest cuts from the land they
occupied in 1967—the settlement areas, the scarce water
sources, the fertile fields. The city of Bethlehem is being
pinched into a seven-square-mile box, surrounded by a barrier
on three sides.
As the wall continues to grow, giant digging machines,
protected by armed guards, claw into the earth day and night.
When completed, it will extend 450 miles (720 kilometers),
sometimes dipping as far as 15 miles (24 kilometers) into West
Bank territory, claiming 10 percent of Palestinian land for
Israeli settlers. The Israeli government says its goal is only
to protect Israeli lives, not to redraw the border, and as
soon as there's a sweeping shift in Palestinian policy toward
Israel, the wall will be destroyed and the confiscated land
returned. The Israeli government doesn't even call it a wall.
It prefers the term "security fence," and in most places in
the West Bank it is indeed a network of electrified chain-link
fences and coils of barbed wire. But not in Bethlehem. The
wall around much of Bethlehem is taller than the barriers used
in Israeli prisons.
The Israeli government says the wall is working. The second
intifada brought wave after wave of suicide bombings, striking
throughout Israel, killing scores of civilians and soldiers.
Starting in 2003, with construction of the wall proceeding at
top speed, and with intensified military checkpoints, patrols,
and intelligence, the number of attacks drastically declined.
"Our life was hell," says Ronnie Shaked, an Israeli
were blowing up; buses were blowing up. But no longer. The
wall is very important—it's protecting us. Thank God there is
But Palestinian leaders argue the wall has little to do with
the reduction in suicide attacks. The bombings have stopped,
they say, because the major militant groups, including Hamas,
proclaimed a ban on them, in the hope of restarting peace
talks. A concrete wall can't stop someone who's willing to
die, many Palestinians say, and if militant groups wanted,
they could send a suicide bomber into Jerusalem every hour of
powerful politician in Bethlehem sees it another way. Salah
Al-Tamari, the governor of the Bethlehem district, views the
wall as a psychological ploy. "The Israelis want to provoke
us; they want us to lose our minds," he says. "They want us to
leave." The governor believes that the Israelis have purposely
created such unlivable conditions in hopes that everyone will
flee. Then they can have the land to themselves.
"Well, they can't have it," says Al-Tamari. He predicts the
opposite will occur: The Israelis will eventually lose. The
governor claims that simple demographics strongly favor the
Palestinians. Muslim Palestinians on average have more
children per family than Israeli Jews. "Their nuclear weapon,"
as one Israeli soldier puts it, "is the womb." By 2010 the
number of Jews and Palestinians in Israel and the occupied
territories will be about equal. After that, the Palestinians
will have the majority.
"I will stay here, and my children will stay here," says
Al-Tamari. "I'm a believer in the future. The wall will fall
and the occupation will end—maybe in 10 years, maybe 50. We
don't know when, but we do know one thing: We are staying
here, on our land. No matter what." Bethlehem may be where
Christianity began, but today its Christian residents are in a
precarious spot. Israelis see them as Palestinian. Muslims see
them as Christian. They see themselves, alternately, as
lifesaving buffers or double-sided punching bags. Bernard
Sabella, a Christian sociologist and member of the Palestinian
Parliament, says the Christian community may be all that's
keeping the whole area from a blood-soaked implosion. The mere
presence of Christians seems to reduce the scale of violence
in the city: Israeli soldiers tread with caution around
Christian holy sites. The last thing Israel needs is to incur
the wrath of the world's Christians by damaging a revered
And yet Bethlehem's Christians feel increasingly like
outsiders in their own city. Many dress in current Western
fashion—tight jeans, plunging necklines, flashy jewelry. On
Saturday nights, teenagers head to Cosmos, one of the only
discos in the West Bank, where tequila shots are passed around
and there is (somewhat) dirty dancing. Though some Muslims
dress in modern styles, most Islamic women in Bethlehem wear
head scarves, and others wear jilbobs, long, loose-fitting
coverings designed to hide all curves. Drinking alcohol, for
both sexes, is not acceptable in public. Social mingling
between Christians and Muslims is infrequent, and interfaith
marriages are almost nonexistent. Still, Christians and
Muslims do work side by side at government offices, hospitals,
schools, and charitable organizations.
At the checkpoints, Christians are treated like all other
Bethlehem residents: with extreme suspicion. Even the mayor,
Victor Batarseh—Bethlehem's mayor, by city ordinance, must be
Christian—is not allowed to remain on the Israeli side of the
wall past 7 p.m. "It's degrading," says Batarseh. "If I'm
invited to cocktails in Jerusalem, I can't go because I don't
have permission." He is 73 years old.
Bernard Sabella estimates that, because of the conflict, more
than 3,000 Christians have fled in the past seven years. "It's
not sheer numbers," says Sabella, "it's the type of people.
Who is emigrating? The educated, the rich, the politically
moderate, young families. Those who are best able to change
the situation are leaving. Those who are unskilled, without
education, or politically radical can't get visas."
unable to survive here," says the patriarch of a Christian
family who asked that their name not be mentioned. In
Bethlehem, he says, the local government is essentially a
puppet of the Israeli army—the police and the courts have
little authority, a situation that affects all residents,
including Muslims. The real power in Bethlehem is controlled
by extended families, and the most powerful clans are Muslim.
Some in Bethlehem say privately they wish the Israelis would
simply take over the city.
"Christians are afraid that if we speak frankly and Muslim
families hear, we'll be persecuted," says the patriarch.
"We'll be forced to pay a lot of money. And physical things,
of course, are possible. Arson. Anything you can think of."
His family lives in a
hosh, a traditional group of houses built around a
courtyard. They've been in Bethlehem so long they're mentioned
in the Old Testament. They were here before Christ. "There's
actually a Jewish branch of the family in Jerusalem," he says.
"We separated about 2,000 years ago, when some of the family
decided to follow Christ's teachings."
Now he's thinking of leaving. He has a sister in California
and four brothers in Honduras. "Our family," he says, "will be
entirely gone from the Holy Land for the first time since
Christ. And I'll sell my hosh to Muslims. They'll consider it
a victory—another one off the Christians! How can the
Christian world accept this?"
Fifty years ago, there were just a handful of mosques in the
Bethlehem district. Now there are close to a hundred. "My soul
lives in Bethlehem," he says. "I'm like a fish—this is my
water. Take me out, and I wither and die. But I'm afraid of
the future. Can you imagine Bethlehem without any Christians?
You better start imagining it, because in a few years, it
might be reality."
The Christians themselves are not immune to infighting.
Literally every square foot of the Church of the Nativity is
battled over by the three sects that share use of the church:
Greek Orthodox, Roman Catholic, and Armenian Orthodox. The
holy men of the three denominations bicker over who gets to
clean which sacred wall, who can walk in which aisle. The
guards in the church, it sometimes seems, are not there to
protect tourists but to keep priests from attacking each
other. "Apart from Christ," says Father Ibrahim Faltas, a
Franciscan friar who served in the Church of the Nativity for
12 years, "there have been few here who would turn the other
They can't even agree on Christmas in Bethlehem. What date is
the holy day celebrated at the Church of the Nativity? The
Greek Orthodox priests, who have a slight majority interest in
the control of the church, rely for ecclesiastical purposes on
the Julian calendar, which has a 13-day lag from the current
Gregorian calendar. So their Christmas Mass is on January 6.
The Bethlehem Christmas Eve service televised worldwide on
December 24 actually takes place in the much newer St.
Catherine's Church, run by the Roman Catholics, adjacent to
the Church of the Nativity. And just to make things more
complex, the Armenians celebrate Christmas in their wing of
the church on January 18. So Christmas comes but thrice a year
But no matter your version of Christianity—or even if you're
not religious at all—there seems to be something significant
to the cave beneath the church floor, with its odor of incense
and candle wax, lit by a string of bare bulbs. Visitors from
all over the world descend the 14 steps into the earth. Many
drop involuntarily to their knees. They pray, sing, weep, and
faint at the Nativity spot. It happens all day, every day.
The air in that grotto, dank and musty, has the smell of
history. The conflicts played out in Bethlehem are capable of
transcending borders—the future of millions of people, after
all, is at stake. A major breakdown could engulf much of the
globe. "It's easy to think of Bethlehem as the center of the
world," says Mayor Batarseh. "This can't be a place where calm
never exists. If the world is ever going to have peace, it has
to start right here."
Michael Finkel reported on malaria in the July 2007 issue of
National Geographic. Christopher Anderson was named 2006
Magazine Photographer of the Year for his work in Gaza,
Venezuela, and Lebanon.
: National Geographic Magazine / December 2007
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