March 2005
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Perspectives Journal
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March 2005: Essay

Bethlehem Beckoning

by Donald A. Luidens

Every twenty years, Bethlehem has beckoned me. In 1964, seventeen years after the outbreak of what Palestinian Arabs call "The Disaster" (an-Nakbah) and Israelis call "The War of Independence," I visited Bethlehem with my family. Then in the Kingdom of Jordan, Bethlehem was a wonderfully dusty little town of crowded houses and twisting alleys masquerading as streets, replete with the sounds and smells of donkeys and Mercedes taxis. Trinket hawkers were persistent and ubiquitous on Manger Square in front of the Byzantine-era Church of the Nativity and in the shops that rimmed the Square.

While hardly a prosperous place, Bethlehem had attained a significant level of stability. Families thrived; children went to school; businesses were economically viable; Bethlehem's citizens traveled unhindered throughout much of the world, with the exception of the recently created state of Israel. Tourists and pilgrims crowded the "holy sites"--including the Church of the Nativity, a complex of sanctuaries surrounding the traditional site of Jesus' birth; the "Milk Grotto," where Mary was reported to have nursed her infant son; and the scattering of local olive orchards and grape vineyards which claimed to have held startled shepherds one evening, two thousand years ago. It was a place where one could imagine the Prince of Peace making his worldly entry on that starry night. It was a place where the echoes of the past-- in clothing, conveyance, atmosphere, and lifestyle--were still rumbling. But all of this was about to change.

I returned to a very different Bethlehem in 1984, seventeen years after the Six Day War of 1967. In the aftermath of that War, the entire "West Bank" along with the Gaza Strip, the Sinai, and the Golan Heights of Syria had come under Israeli military occupation. Israel had already begun an aggressive program to incorporate all of Arab Jerusalem (which included the city's most important Jewish, Muslim, and Christian sites) into its territory. The rest of the occupied lands were in political and economic limbo. While the Occupation had been repeatedly condemned by the United Nations, and even the United States had agreed that the territory should be returned to the Palestinians, no lasting peace was in sight.

Rather, an uneasy standoff prevailed. Because Israel officially absorbed Arab Jerusalem and its surrounding land, the border with Israel came to the edges of Bethlehem. Other changes were in the wind. Donkeys had given way to trucks of assorted sizes and states of disrepair; in place of the Mercedes taxis, fiftypassenger buses disgorged pilgrims and tourists under the watchful eye of Israeli guides. These folks were quickly herded into the Church of the Nativity and then back onto the buses, deliberately avoiding Palestinians and their merchandise.

Future Wall
The wall will be built between the woman on the left and the home with the pot in front. It will run along the face of the house, within about two feet. The wall will cut off these homeowners from their front yard, where their children have played amid olive trees and swings. This site, just outside of Bethlehem, has been the source of considerable international protesting and legal intervention. However, it is expected that the government of Israel will complete this section of the wall within a few months.
Worse, Manger Square reeked of diesel fumes, making an extended excursion to local shops an unbearable ordeal. The oncethriving businesses were finding it harder to make ends meet. The once good-natured pestering by the hawkers had grown more testy. Life throughout Bethlehem had grown more precarious.

On one of my visits to the University of Bethlehem in 1984, a group of students showed me a tear-gas canister that had been shot through the chapel window by Israeli troops quelling a demonstration. It was labeled "Made in Bethlehem, PA." From one Bethlehem to another. The searing irony was not lost on these bright young men and women, and their bitterness boiled just beneath the surface. Three years later, the pent-up anger exploded in the first Intifada, an uprising against the Occupation which took the form of strikes, demonstrations, rock-throwing, and more fearsome suicide bombings. Teenagers were the driving force in this undertaking.

In the fall of 2004, I returned to a much bleaker Bethlehem. The embers of the second Intifada are still glowing, but a state of repressed quiet prevails. Periodic outbursts cycle around the landscape in the form of Palestinian suicide bombings and Israeli government-sanctioned assassinations and reprisals. Largely spared the worst of these bloody exchanges, Bethlehem has nevertheless suffered from their reverberations.

In 2000, Bethlehem was invaded by Israel, intent on squashing the Intifada. The heavy-handed tactics included the occupation of many of the municipal and religious facilities and a general lock-down of all citizens for weeks on end. Many Bethlehemites did not have water or food for extended periods because the Israelis would not permit them to leave their homes to shop and because the municipal facilities were shut off. This nightmare ended in a climactic siege at the Church of the Nativity. More than 300 Palestinian males--Muslims as well as Christians--sought sanctuary within those grounds. After initial, sporadic fire- fights (bullet-holes punctured the northern façade of the sanctuary and the head of the statue of St. Jerome was shot from its perch), cooler heads prevailed. An extended period of negotiation resulted in the Palestinians being exiled, some to the Gaza Strip and others out of Palestine entirely.

Bethlehem of 2004 is in desperate straits. The debilitation of constant harassment and humiliation at the hands of Israeli troops has worn heavily on the lives of its inhabitants. As one woman so eloquently put it, "We don't laugh from our hearts anymore." Arbitrary punishment and systematic confinement--whether through formal arrest and incarceration or through mass entrapment of Palestinians within walled towns and villages--have been the order of the day.

The dominant reality in the Occupied Territories is the burgeoning presence of so-called "settlements." The term is deceptive. It implies temporary quarters, yet these are permanent communities built by Israel on Palestinian land since the 1967 War. These establishments range from oneor two-building military billets to extensive cities. One night in early 2004, in a Palestinian's olive orchard just outside of Bethany, a group of Israeli expansionists erected a one-story, cement-block house and raised an Israeli flag; on the barbed wire fence around the house they placed a sign that proclaimed the structure and surrounding property to be an outpost of Zion. Palestinians woke to find Israeli extremists firmly ensconced within this barricaded encampment. Such settlements have been declared illegal by the World Court and are erected in blatant contravention of the Peace Accords to which the United States and Israel are both signatories. They are also in direct violation of all international agreements about the conduct of a military occupation. Nonetheless, this house has now become the centerpiece of a future Israeli city, protected by a wall which separates the olive orchard from its former owners.

Maale Adummim represents the other extreme, a fully developed city in the midst of impoverished Palestinian communities. Its imitation of suburbia--complete with shopping malls and public parks--stands out in stark relief amid the arid Judean hills. With incredible mockery the center of Maale Adummim boasts a large "peace" fountain, adorned by a swooping dove and bathed by a continual, lavish flow of water. Meanwhile, neighboring Palestinians are denied the right to replenish their wells and are forced to pay for water at four times the Israeli rate. The municipality of Maale Adummim lays claim to the entire expanse from the eastern slopes of the Mount of Olives down the Judean hills to the outskirts of Jericho--a swath of territory that divides Palestine right down the middle. Plans are underway to expand its 50,000 current residents by another 20,000 within the next five years, further securing this "settlement."

The settlements are a lynchpin in Israel's strategy of expropriation and expansion. Another component is the wall. More accurately, "the wall" is a series of walls, some connected, some standing entirely alone. All are strategically placed to maximize Israeli control of Palestinian farms and open spaces and to minimize Palestinian mobility. To accomplish this, Israel has created a patchwork of homelands for the Palestinians, isolated enclaves where Palestinians are allowed to live and work. To move from one to another, Palestinians must obtain passes and submit to repeated interrogation at countless roadblocks throughout Palestine. These checkpoints-- some permanent and grotesque in their fortress- like vastness, others temporary and randomly erected--govern all movement from enclave to enclave. Stories abound of people who have waited for weeks to obtain passes, yet who were denied passage on the appointed day because of some arbitrary decision made by a border guard: because they could not provide evidence of having paid light or sewer bills, for instance, or because they supposedly overstepped a line in the sidewalk or failed to stand still under a baking summer sun.

Among the wall's harshest effects is the separation of all Palestinians--farmers in particular--from their open spaces and farmlands. Where olive orchards, forests, wheat farms, or vineyards border on the wall's paths, the wall is being routed to draw the land under Israeli control. At other times, the snaking wall and the pass system create such hardships that farmers find it impossible to maintain their farms. For centuries, local farmers have done their farming early in the morning, from 4:00 or 4:30 until 8:30 or 9:00, and then again in the cool of the evening. Crops picked early in the day are still ripe and juicy when they reach the market by mid-morning. Under the current system, many farmers are being denied passes; by one report fewer than fifteen percent of the farmers in northern Palestine are regularly allowed out of the walled cantons which Israel has erected. Others are denied access to their fields until mid-morning. This later start means that farmers must work during the heat of the day and leaves their produce dried out or overripe by the time it reaches the market.

Wall
The Wall has been deliberately positioned to separate Palestinian homes from neighboring open spaces and farmland. The small orchard on the left is a unique exception to the rule. The wall consists of pre-fabricated slabs of cement, about 25 feet high and about six feet wide, sitting on cement feet. Once the slabs have been raised, the feet are buried and the chinks are filled in.
The longterm objective of this separation of Palestinians from their open spaces is transparent. Israel intends to make life so miserable that Palestinians will have no alternative but to emigrate.

Why is this strategy being so aggressively implemented at this time? In large measure the element of urgency is the result of recent population projections which suggest that the combined territories of Israel and Palestine will soon have more Palestinians than Jews, a situation that makes the pretext of "democracy" virtually impossible for Israel to sustain.

While statistics vary considerably, best estimates suggest that there are roughly 5.5 million Israeli Jews. This includes Israelis with dual citizenship living in the United States, Europe, or Latin America. It also includes about one million Russian Jews who have become citizens since the first Gulf War in 1991. This massive in-migration, encouraged in large measure to build up the Jewish population, has had a significant impact on the settlements. With United States government financial support, these new immigrants have been provided large inducements (including lower taxes and guaranteed, low-cost loans) to purchase property in the settlements. For many unsuspecting Jewish refugees from the former Soviet Union, this windfall makes them unwitting targets of Palestinian ire and Israeli government manipulation.

There are approximately 2.2 million Arabs--Christians and Muslims--living in the former West Bank; another 1.7 million live in the Gaza Strip, and 1.3 million are full citizens within Israel. All told, about 5.2 million Arabs live within the borders that Israel controls. Projections based on current birth rates are that Arabs will outnumber Jews within the next ten to fifteen years. Recent plans to "liberate" the Gaza Strip from Israeli control are a way to quickly diminish this looming demographic threat.

The Gaza Strip, a slab of semi-arid land no more than eight miles wide and barely thirty- five miles long, rests along the Mediterranean Sea, jutting into the southwest corner of Israel. On this thumbnail live 1.7 million Gazans, about 200,000 of whom are Palestinians dwelling in miserable, UN-maintained refugee camps. They fled the 1947-48 war, many having been evicted from Jaffa/Haifa or from the Galilee region in the north. Denied any "right to return" to their homes by Israel, these refugees have long been seen as outsiders by their fellow Gazans. For decades they served as a cheap labor force for construction companies working in Israel. Since the first Intifada in 1987, however, they have been denied access to Israeli jobs, and the camps have become the festering bases for growing anger and militancy among Palestinians.

Which brings us to "terrorism"

The Jewish people have suffered unfathomable harm at the hands of the Christian world, and I would be loath to add to that unspeakably evil history. However, within the context of Palestine, and under the yoke of the Israeli occupation, millions of people are being dehumanized daily. This amounts to state-sponsored terrorism at the hands of the Israeli government. As unconditional allies of Israel, we in the United States have become accomplices in this degrading and fearsome treatment.

It is not just Palestinians who are dehumanized. I once asked an Israeli colonel what he would be most glad to put behind him when his days as a military offi- cer were over. Without hesitation he said he despised having to give old men full-body searches. He hated having to dig in their orifices and rifle through their body hair. His revulsion at the practice was genuine and understandable. Ironically, our conversation occurred barely a week after I had heard from a Jordanian grandmother that she would never see her Palestinian granddaughter again. Although the grandmother was in good health, and although she had a Jordanian passport that would allow her to cross into the Occupied Territories, she announced that she would never again subject herself to the groping fingers of a full-body inspection. In this mirrored set of encounters, the inhumanity of the Occupation came home to me. Oppressed and oppressors were shorn of their value as human beings and were turned into objects for abuse or vilification. It is for this dehumanization of the Jewish people of Israel as well as for its overt brutality toward Palestinians that I rue the evils of the Occupation.

But what about "real" terrorism, the suicide bombings and all that? Without question, these heinous actions must be denounced by all people of good will. And they are. What struck me again and again was the overwhelming condemnation of these acts that I heard from Palestinians. Most decried such desperate measures on moral and religious grounds. At the same time, fear of reprisal also encouraged the condemnation. Suicide bombings resulted in brutal retaliation from Israel; they meant closed borders, restricted mobility, empty bellies, and fitful nights. Although collective punishment violates the Geneva Convention and is contrary to all standards of human rights, it is a daily fact for Palestinians. They have little stomach for it, and they have little patience for the violent and self-destructive acts that bring collective punishment upon them. To understand the underlying causes of suicide bombings is not to condone them. This form of terrorism is as much to be deplored as is the systemic one which nourishes it in the first place. Yet the latter is hardly recognized or condemned outside of Palestine.

One of the stark realities of the confrontation between Israelis and Palestinians is that it is a confrontation between young people. Some estimates suggest that seventy percent of the Palestinians are less than thirty years of age; all have been reared under Israeli occupation and live in a world of suspicion and fear. It is this age group that has fueled the Intifada and has been the principal fodder in the suicides.

At the same time, Israeli youth are subject to the most rigid military requirements of any modern society. Males are called to five years of active duty on completion of high school (at age 17 or 18); females have national service responsibilities as well. Most remain on active reserve for decades. At a crucial stage of maturation and development, when their peers around the globe are being challenged to grow and expand their intellectual horizons through college and career experiences, Israeli youth are being taught the arts of warfare. They are on the front lines at all the borders; they are the immediate targets of all assailants;

Wall Expenses
The construction of the wall has been at the expense of many Palestinian homes, such as the one reduced to the rubble pile in the foreground. They are demolished by private contractors on orders of the Israeli military. Once the homes have been destroyed, the Israeli government sends the bill for the project to the former homeowner. If they fail to pay these exorbitant fees, they are subject to having other property confiscated.
they are the instant decision makers in countless interactions with Palestinians seeking to cross check points. In sum, they too are learning to see the world through the lenses of suspicion and fear. They know no other world than one of military superiority.

Compounding this distrust, Israel is limiting the daily, routine interactions between the Israeli and Palestinian peoples. While many older residents on both sides can recall hopeful and even warm relations between individuals across the ethnic divide, these opportunities are virtually precluded today. In addition to the system of walls, there is a vast network of roads that link Israeli settlements together but that Palestinians are forbidden to use. In the Bethlehem region, Israel has tunneled under Palestinian villages in order to provide settlers direct access to their outposts without having to drive through Palestinian towns. Another such tunnel runs from Maale Adummim under the Mount of Olives, thereby avoiding the Palestinian communities along the way. These tunnels and roadways are symptomatic of Israel's deliberate effort to cut off Palestinians and Israelis from each other. They are also symptomatic of Israel's deliberate effort to cut off Palestinians from their land.

Again, the view from Bethlehem in 2004 is bleak. Israel shows no intention of acceding to a negotiated peace, short of controlling and annexing all of Palestine. It seems intent on absorbing as much land as possible with as few concessions to the Palestinians as possible. Tragically, the United States looks fully complicit in this program, whether deliberately (as suggested in Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld's reference to "the so-called Occupied Territories") or unintentionally through uncritical acceptance of every expansionist policy which Israel undertakes.

When I return to Bethlehem in 2024, what will I find? It is hard to imagine. I pray that Palestinians and Israelis can find a formula to live in peace and justice. Some are talking again of a one-state solution; others are calling for a confederation of regional states and nations in which freedom of movement is guaranteed for all. A variety of new voices are beginning to be heard on just resolutions to the quagmire. I would like to be optimistic. But the trajectory revealed in my three visits has not been an encouraging one. Most importantly, until the United States becomes an even-handed player in the region, I despair that there will ever be incentive for Israel to make the accommodations necessary for peace and justice.

Donald A. Luidens is professor of sociology at Hope College in Holland, Michigan. Born in Bahrain, he specializes in the sociology of religion in North America.

 


Plus ca change, plus c'est la meme chose!

Much has transpired in the months since the accompanying article was written in the fall of 2004. Despite the appearance of change, the issues which underlie the divisions in Palestine/ Israel remain very much in place.

1) The re-election of George W. Bush has elicited a mixed reaction in the Israel/Palestine context. The replacement of a well-regarded Secretary of State, Colin Powell, with the generally suspect Condoleezza Rice is a large unknown. Regarded throughout the Middle East as one of the key architects of the invasion of Iraq and of a generally aggressive approach to Middle East policy, Rice has none of the respect that Powell garnered throughout the Arab world. Her initial visit to the region was well-received, but her disclaimer of United States involvement in any negotiation process echoes with "more of the same." History has shown that, without direct American involvement, Israel has no incentive to make the concessions that are essential for justice as well as for peace.

2) The death of Yasser Arafat and the ascendance of Mahmoud Abbas as President of the Palestinian Authority seem to present a unique, even a kairos moment in time. Indeed, early proclamations of a cease-fire and of a renunciation of violence by Abbas have lent a measure of calm to the region. A recent announcement by Israel that it would release several hundred (of the estimated 8,000) Palestinian prisoners held in Israeli jails has been a welcomed goodwill gesture. Nonetheless, such gestures and proclamations have been made before. Their fragility is rooted in an untenable situation: Israel occupies, and has long occupied, Palestine. Moreover, in none of these gestures has there been any indication that Israel intends not to occupy Palestine in the foreseeable future. "Pull-backs" from Palestinian villages, while trumpeted in the news media as bold signs of Prime Minister Ariel Sharon's felicitous intentions, are merely that--pull-backs, within Palestine, to more defensible positions. There is no intention to pull back beyond the "Green Line" that demarcated the 1967 borders. Israel continues to be an occupying force.

3) Isn't Gaza an indication of Israel's good intentions? While the promise of a withdrawal of Israeli settlers from Gaza has not been inplemented (indeed, it is being virulently resisted by many Israelis, not least the Gaza settlers themselves), it does not spell a total evacuation of Israeli forces from the Gaza Strip. Moreover, the control of Gaza's border with Egypt and access to Gaza via sea and air will be in Israeli hands. In sum, "turning over" the Gaza Strip to the Palestinians is problematic, further confounded by the possibility that the 7,000 or so Israeli settlers from Gaza will be relocated on the West Bank section of Palestine.

4) At the time of this writing, a "cease-fire" exists between the Palestinian Authority and Israel. In part, this has been made possible by the granting of a "honeymoon" period to President Abbas by the more militant Palestinian factions. How long this interlude will last is anyone's guess. Its duration will be determined by actions on the ground--specifically, further visible steps toward evacuating Gaza and the "illegal" settlements. (Israel acknowledges that a limited number of West Bank settlements are illegal; according to international law and the repeated pronouncements of the United Nations, all settlements on the West Bank are so.) Forces abound, on both Palestinian and Israeli sides, to derail this movement.

5) The on-going conflict in Iraq, punctuated by the hopeful sign of the recent elections there, creates a climate of considerable uncertainty throughout the Middle East. Palestine/Israel is not the least eddy swept along by the flow of events in Mesopotamia. The American battle cry of "spreading democracy" is a central current in this flow. American recognition of the recent election in Palestine (one in a series of democratic elections carried out by the Palestinian Authority over the past three decades) sets the stage for claiming Palestine as one of the Bush Administration's democratic success stories in the Middle East. Longer term, the injection of the US military into Iraq will continue to ripple throughout the region, providing promises of change--and reminders of former colonial overlords. As with other currents in this stream, these are a mixed lot.

In sum, while the surface of the landscape seems to bloom with new signs of life-giving hope, the soil is thin. The underlying layers of occupation and suppression are still the defining characteristics of the scene; unless those who exercise that occupation and suppression choose to seek justice, show mercy, and walk in humility, "plus ca change, plus c'est la meme chose."