I HAVE NEVER visited Bethlehem during normal times. I have never seen the city crowded with tourists. In fact, I have probably seen more Israeli soldiers at its checkpoints than pilgrims in Manger Square.
My first visit was in 1997, just after Israel had sealed off the West Bank and Gaza in response to the Ben Yehuda mall bombing in Jerusalem. We had tried to enter the city, but concrete barriers and truculent soldiers had barred our way.
After driving around, we were directed to a track that bumped through a stony field. Our driver went a short way, but then turned back, saying he could not risk damaging the suspension of his commercial mini-bus.
Bethlehem is only 10 kilometres south of Jerusalem, so we returned to the Strand Hotel to wait to for nightfall. We would take a taxi as far as we could on a side road, and using the cover of darkness, sneak past the blockade.
After sunset, we drove from Jerusalem towards the city. Our driver had done this trip many times before. He turned off his headlights, and we nudged along a bumpy track until a hole and pile of rocks blocked our way.
“Be quiet,” said our driver, “don’t let the soldiers hear you!”
Waiting about 100 metres from us in the darkness was our ride into Bethlehem. We crept through a field and slipped into the awaiting vehicle. I was in the passenger seat and as we approached a Palestinian roadblock, found myself staring at the muzzle of a gun.
The rest of our journey into Manger Square was less heart stopping. There was little traffic and the Square itself was empty. In fact, there was nothing to see, as to our disappointment, the Church of the Nativity was closed.
Our visit did, however, invite curiosity. Postcard sellers emerged from the shadows. We were invited for tea at a souvenir shop, its owner opening his doors for us. It sold all the usual olive wood rosaries, chocolate box icons and silver bric à brac on its crowded shelves. I was impressed by a mother-of-pearl model of the Dome of the Rock, but even with bargaining, it was beyond my pocket.
Bethlehem, which is situated on the mountainous West Bank has been inhabited since the Stone Age. It was called Ephrath in the Book of Genesis1. It was the birthplace of David and is where he was anointed king by Samuel2.
Genesis3 also mentions the burial near Bethlehem of Rachel, wife of Jacob, mother of Benjamin. Her rock tomb has been renovated by the Mamluks, the Ottomans and Sir Moses Montefiore, who built a dome over it in 1841.
Revered by all faiths, its caretaker from 1948 until the 1980’s was the Islamic Waqf Authority. Today, Rachel’s tomb is under Israeli control.
Known in Arabic as Bait Lahm (the City of Meat) and in Hebrew as Bait Lehem (the City of Bread), Bethlehem is distinguished as being the birthplace of Jesus. It was Saint Helena who built the Church of the Nativity in 333 CE over the site of a Roman temple dedicated to Adonis.
The Church of the Nativity is Christianity’s oldest existing building, and has been a monastic centre for centuries. Saint Jerome translated the Bible into Latin from Greek in a nearby cave.
In 614 CE the Persians invaded Palestine, but spared the Church of the Holy Nativity due to a mosaic of the Magi, or the Three Wise Men. According to Scripture, these men had followed a star that had led them to the birthplace of Christ. The Church was saved because the Three Magi – called Kaspar, Melchior and Balthazar – were Zoroastrian priests held in the highest regard by the Persians.
When Caliph ‘Umar arrived in Bethlehem in about 638 CE he decreed that the Church of the Nativity be preserved for Christian worship. In 1099 the Greek Orthodox were removed from their Sees by the Crusaders. During the Ottoman era, custodianship of the church was disputed by the Catholic and Greek churches.
The United Nations Partition Decision of 1947 put Bethlehem under the ambit of Jerusalem’s corpus separatum. In other words, Bethlehem was part of Jerusalem’s international zone. Jordan held control of the city until it was occupied by Israel in 1967, and in 1995, Bethlehem fell under the control of the Palestinian Authority in compliance with the Oslo Accords.
Since 1948, Bethlehem has changed in character from being a Christian city to a Muslim one. Apart from emigration being the option of many Christian Palestinians, the conflict has seen the predominantly Muslim refugee camps of Bait Jibrin, A’ida and Deheisheh springing up outside the city.
My second visit to Bethlehem was in early June 2002, right after ‘Operation Defensive Shield’ and the 39-day siege of the Church. This was when Israeli forces had entered Manger Square in pursuit of gunmen. About 200 people were forced to take refuge in the Church, resulting in a standoff that attracted international headlines.
Much had changed since my visit five years previously, not least of all, the construction of the Gilo checkpoint, one of the 69 permanently staffed checkpoints amongst 500 or so Palestinian barriers dotting the West Bank.
Gilo opened at 5 am and closed at 7 pm. For the 2,000 Palestinians who had to cross it daily, it was a soul-destroying experience. What had been a ten-minute taxi ride into Jerusalem, now took more than two hours each way. For those fortunate enough to work in Israel, it meant queuing at 4 am to get to work by 7 am.
Due to the capriciousness of the young conscripts manning the checkpoint, this did not always happen. People we spoke to said crossing the Gilo checkpoint was more tiring, more stressful – and sometimes even more time consuming – than their job. Settlers on the West Bank used separate roads that bypassed the checkpoints.
We approached Gilo at about 10 am. Women in black hijab with shopping bags and an old man were waiting to be processed. As foreigners with passports, it took us about 20 minutes to get through the metal detectors and turnstiles. I saw the old man fidgeting for his identity papers as a soldier in a bulletproof glass booth barked out orders in Hebrew.
On the other side, we caught a taxi to town – or what was left of it. The main road into Bethlehem was like a set from Frank Ford Coppola’s ‘Apocalypse Now’. Israeli tanks had flattened pavements, wrecked vehicles, ripped out telephone lines, knocked over lampposts and left gaping potholes in the tar. Some buildings had been shelled, others flattened. Even trees had been destroyed.
We stopped at a house where two young boys were sweeping up the debris of their living room. A shell had punctured the front wall and smashed into the opposite one. Another family showed me bullet holes in their front door.
“We were just sitting at home and these soldiers started firing at us,” said a young man.
On a rise above me I saw a house covered with camouflage netting. It was flying the Star of David. “What’s that?” I asked.
“It’s an Israeli lookout point,” replied our taxi driver, who said that the family living there had been evicted.
We also visited Yasser ‘Arafat’s headquarters. F16 fighter jets had reduced it to a series of concrete pancakes, twisted steel and piles of rubble under which were flattened cars. Glass and porcelain crunched underfoot.
Israel, claiming that it was hitting back at suicide bombers during ‘Operation Defensive Shield’, had attacked civic infrastructure and private homes, as well as detaining – without charge – scores of people. Yet in Bethlehem there were no military targets as defined by the Geneva Convention. The city harboured no hostile forces – other than a few resistance fighters armed with aging Kalashnikovs.
Locals such as the 22-year-old Amjad Adnan Sa’ada, who bred birds for a living, could tell me that on 17 June 2001, during the height of the intifadah, an Apache helicopter had fired a missile at his house. He had escaped with severe shrapnel injuries, but two of his uncles and a cousin – all of them innocents – had died.
Muhammad Shehadeh, a local activist, could recount that on 26 May 2002, Apache helicopters had fired several missiles at his house, destroying it completely.
According to international law, military attacks on civilians were illegal. Collective punishment – à la Operation Defensive Shield – was a major breach of its statutes.
Our next stop was the house of a Palestinian martyr, the 32 year-old Musa Abdullah, who had passed away on 22 May. We parked outside his second-floor apartment. Sayyid Walid had been given money in South Africa to donate to a deserving family, and apparently after consultation, Musa Abdullah’s widow had been chosen.
I had visited martyrs’ families in southern Lebanon before, and was not relishing the encounter. Even though there was pride attached to martyrdom, my experience was that for those affected it never diminished the harsh realities of loss and grief. The shock of death, especially when unexpected, was hardly made less bearable by its elevated status.
On a wall outside the apartment was a poster of Abdullah, a thin young man with a moustache.
His wife, a woman in her late 20’s, opened the door with an infant on her hip. The sparsely decorated living room had a picture of the Dome of the Rock on the wall. A piece of tinsel and a red plastic Hibiscus were draped over the frame.
She told us that her husband had gone to the shop during a curfew break (Palestinians had been confined to their houses) to buy bread. On his way back, carrying bags of circular loaves, he had been confronted by an Israeli army patrol. They had told him to lift his shirt to see if he was wearing an explosive ‘suicide belt’. But as he did so, he had been shot dead.
While we chat, his 14-year-old son blusters in Arabic that he also wants to die a martyr. But all I see is his mother biting back her tears. She is close to collapse. Our visit to her has been more than she can bear, and it is with relief that I bid salam.
Our next stop is Manger Square and the Church of the Nativity with its lowered door, the Door of Humility. Apart from engendering a sense of reverence as one entered the church, I was told it had prevented excitable Mamluk horsemen from galloping into the nave.
As we approached the entrance, vendors selling trinkets, beads, rosaries, crucifixes and keffiyahs swarmed around us. Manger Square was empty and they were desperate for business. “Here’s a special present for you,” said one persistent salesman, as I tried to swat him off.
Us South Africans were definitely not going to transform the city’s economy in one short visit, and I felt sorry for these people. Their livelihoods had been destroyed through no fault of their own.
Inside the church it was dingy. There were no pews in the nave, its oak roof supported by a double row of veined columns with efflorescent capitals. I viewed the original mosaic floor through a trapdoor. At its Greek Orthodox altar, marked by a glittering iconostasis, I saw bearded priests.
The grotto of the Nativity, which was accessed by a flight of stairs to the right of the Greek altar, had a rock ceiling stained with soot. It was a syncretism of Orthodox and Catholic tastes. In the grotto’s rectangular space there were three altars.
The spot where it was believed Jesus had been born to Virgin Mary was marked by a fourteen-pointed silver star. ‘Hic se Virgine Maria Jesus natus est’ said an inscription. My high school Latin told me that it proclaimed Jesus had been born there.
Above the marble-encased star a thicket of lamps hung in a tangle of chains – six placed by the Greeks, five by the Armenians and four by the Catholics. To my right was an altar said to be where Jesus had been ‘adored’ by the Three Magi. Another altar, the Altar of the Manger, was used by the Catholics. The walls of the grotto were draped with red curtains.
We proceeded to the mosque of ‘Umar across the square for the post midday prayer. Bethlehem’s mosque was not as historic as it sounded. Although it commemorated the presence of the Caliph in Bethlehem, I was told that its current structure had been built in 1947. I was also informed that during the siege of the Church of the Nativity, Israeli forces had imprisoned and beaten its imam, accusing him of ‘encouraging Hamas’.
After the prayers we were invited to lunch. As we sat down to grilled chicken and salads, we heard a racket from a loud hailer outside. It was attached to the roof of a car that was driving slowly through the neighbourhood.
“Don’t worry, it’s just the announcement of a wedding,” laughed our host, Abu Ahmad, who said that Abu Ahmad’s son next door was getting married to the daughter of Abu Ahmad a block away. The room collapsed in a heap of mirth and giggles emanated from the kitchen when Isma’il asked how much a Palestinian wife would cost him.
The West Bank is one of the oldest inhabited areas on earth, and our hosts told us that frenetic settlement building was fast destroying its heritage. “So much has been destroyed or lost already,” sighed Abu Ahmad, who added that countless prophets had trodden its soils.
“The settlers are stealing our land, pilfering our water and chopping down our olive trees. They even colonise our history. But Bethlehem is our home,” he said, “it’s the only place in the world where you can celebrate Christmas on three separate days.”