Spare a thought for Bethlehem

Last January I managed to visit Bethlehem after 5.5 hours of  delay and “obstruction” at the Jordan/Palestine border by the Israeli authorities.  As well as visiting the (Christian) University of Bethlehem, I also paid a visit to the birthplace of Christ and the place where Christmas originated.  At this time of year, it is appropriate to remember just how much the occupants of Bethlehem are affected by the illegal occupation and I am grateful to the Palestinian mission for the following information, which I will present without further comment – it speaks for itself.

Bethlehem is located 10 kilometers to the south of Jerusalem. It has a population of over 220,000 people, including over 20,000 living in three refugee camps (Dheisheh, Aida and Beit Jibrin).

The most important cities and towns of the governorate are Bethlehem City, Beit Jala, Beit Sahour, Al Doha, Al Khader, Battir and Artas.

There are two sites in the governorate that have been inscribed as UNESCO World Heritage Sites:

  1. The Nativity Church and Star Street (“Church of the Nativity and the Pilgrimage Route”).
  2. Battir, including Wadi’ Makhrour (“Land of Olives and Vines – Cultural Landscape of Southern Jerusalem, Battir”).

Other important heritage and archeological sites located in the governorate are:

  • The Herodion Mountain (under full Israeli control).
  • The Rachel Tomb / Bilal Bin Rabah Mosque (under full Israeli control).
  • The Pools of King Salomon in Artas.
  • The Shepherds Field in Beit Sahour (there are two locations: one for the Roman Catholic Church and one for the Greek Orthodox Patriarchate).
  • Saint Nicholas Church in Beit Jala (a large parade of scouts takes place every December 19th marking Saint Nicholas’ Day).
  • Saint George’s Monastery in Al Khader.
  • Cremisan Valley (including its monasteries and winery).
  • The Dead Sea (under full Israeli control).

 Israeli Settlements

  • There are 18 illegal Israeli settlements across the Bethlehem Governorate with a population of over 100,000 settlers. This includes areas within the Israeli-defined, expanded and annexed “Jerusalem Municipality”. In effect, Israeli settlements surround the holy city of Bethlehem from its four sides.
  • The most prominent Israeli settlements in the Bethlehem area are Gilo and Har Homa to the north; Har Gilo, Beitar Illit and Neve Daniel to the West, Efrat to the south as well as Nokdim and Tekoa to the East. Among the Israeli settlers living in the Bethlehem governorate there are the Defense Minister Avigdor Lieberman (Nokdim), Knesset Speaker Yuli Edelstein (Neve Daniel) and Minister of Environment and Jerusalem Affairs, Ze’ev Elkin (Kfar Eldad).
  • The construction of Israel’s illegal Annexation Wall in Beit Jala (Bir Onah/Cremisan) continued during 2016, with the uprooting of ancient olive trees and restricting access to the Palestinian valley of Cremisan.
  • Under the Oslo Accords, the Palestinian government exercises control over only 13% of the Bethlehem Governorate. In the absence of the Israeli occupation, Bethlehem would have open roads connecting it with Jerusalem and the Dead Sea.

 Connection with Jerusalem

  • Bethlehem and Jerusalem have been twin cities for centuries. The Israeli occupation through its policy of colonization, including its illegal Annexation Wall, has separated both cities for first time in 2000 years of Christianity. This includes the pilgrimage routes that now have to cross through an Israeli checkpoint.
  • For Palestinian ID holders, entry to Jerusalem is restricted. They can only do so after obtaining an Israeli military permit. In the vast majority of cases, this permit is restricted to certain hours and does not allow the holder to drive a car.
  • Israel’s racially biased citizenship laws have prevented thousands of Palestinian Jerusalemites from obtaining family reunification for their spouses and children from the rest of the Occupied State of Palestine. This has particularly affected Palestinian Christians that had intermarried between Bethlehem, Jerusalem and Ramallah for centuries.
  • Both East Jerusalem and Bethlehem are an integral part of the Occupied State of Palestine.

Spare a thought for the Bethlehemites when you see Christmas worship being broadcast from the Church of the Nativity in Manger Square.

Comments on this post will be pre-moderated.

* John Kelly is a member in Warwick District, Secretary of the Lib Dem Friends of Palestine, and a member of the Federal International Relations Committee.

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This entry was posted in Op-eds.


  • Katharine Pindar 24th Dec '16 - 10:02am

    Thank you for this, John. I always feel a bit sad when singing ‘Oh little town of Bethlehem’ in church at Christmas, and at other times when thinking how the divisions in Palestine are no nearer solution. I am glad though of the new UN resolution noting and deploring the expanding Israeli settlements. Have a blessed Christmas yourself.

  • Spare a thought for the plight of Christians in Syria ( ancient Christian land) and the Christians in northern Iraq (original churches) at this time of year.

  • The hatred that the abstention by the US on the UN vote has aroused is a sign that, after 2000 odd years, the Christmas message is, sadly, still just a dream…

  • Chris Bentley 24th Dec '16 - 11:46am

    This article pointedly only blames Israel. There is plenty of blame to go around when it comes to the problems – and we should consider both sides of this long conflict. My counter arguments are too long to list here right now but suffice to say the truth is much more nuanced in my opinion, than the story you seek to project. Saying that – I always have thought that Israeli settlement building in the West Bank was the worst of Israel’s policies and only succeeds in moving a two state solution further and further away.

  • Eddie Sammon 24th Dec '16 - 12:21pm

    The UN Security Council resolution yesterday is a good start. As I’ve been saying: the 1947 partition plan for Palestine had a Jewish state, an Arabe state and Jerusalem under international control. We might baulk at this religious based partition today, but the plan also had protection for minorities and is the basis for which much of Israel’s legitimacy comes from, so it should be respected. Israeli settlements in Palestinian recognised areas don’t respect this.

    We’ve also had Benjamin Netanyahu trying to keep the Golan Heights from Syria and talks about moving embassies to Jerusalem, which shouldn’t happen either.

    Finally, in defence of Israel: I support their right to defend themselves militarily. We need to be careful about selective outrage when it comes to Israel compared to what other states and what we ourselves sometimes do.

  • Thank you Katharine. The good news from the UN Security Council came after I had written this and I am of course delighted. It was good to see the British and French governments positively voting in favour of the resolution, although all the media attention seems to be on the US position.

  • Chris Bentley – you use a common tactic which is to pretend that this is a conflict with arguments on both sides. There is very little that a liberal democrat can defend in a situation where Israel has been in breach of the 4th Geneva Convention for decades and continues to ignore international law with its oppressive occupation of the Palestinian territories. Netanyahu’s reaction to the UN vote on Friday is to carry on with settlement building (i.e. seizing/destroying Palestinian property in order to do so) in defiance of the international community. This is so unjust – surely no genuine Liberal Democrat can try to explain this away.

  • A Social Liberal 25th Dec '16 - 4:26am

    Too many people use the common tactic which is to pretend that the problems of the area is all down to the Israelis. Given this, let’s have a bit of revision rather than revisionism.

    When Israel seized the territory of the West Bank after the Seven Day War it wasn’t taken from a Palestinian authority, but from the then Trans Jordan who had annexed it. So why did Israel take the West Bank. It is quite simple, for over a decade the Jordanians had been lobbing shells into Israel – this inter state violence, remember, visited from territory Trans Jordan had no right to be on. The aggression built up until in June 1967 the armies of five different countries tried once again to wipe Israel off the face of the earth.

    Now that we have rediscovered how Israel came to be occupying the West Bank, I’ll explain (once again) why they still occupy the land they had to take. Well, in the West Bank it began with Al Fatah – set up in 1959 by Yasser Arafat – which began to commit terrorist atrocities against civilians in Israel. After a failed Fatah coup against Jordan which resulted in the Palestinian people being forced out, Fatah set up Black September – initially to bring down King Hussain but after to commit acts of terror against jews. The terrorists had their bases in the West Bank and would still be sending terrorists into Israel from there if it were not for the security forces.

    And so to the settlements. Personally I agree with the security council that they should be dismantled, and also with John Kelly in that allowing Israeli settlements might well have been a war crime. However, all the rest of the article above – trying to play on christian sentiment – cannot be condoned.

  • Social Liberal
    You forgot to mention the origins of the civil war in Lebanon.

  • Richard Underhill 26th Dec '16 - 8:36am

    Bill Clinton’s memoirs show that a deal on the Golan Heights was available with Syria’s late President Assad, father of the current President Assad.

  • Richard Underhill 26th Dec '16 - 9:24am 2004
    ISBN 1 3 5 7 9 10 8 6 4 2
    Bashar al Assad pages 884, 903.
    The Israeli PM was Barak.

  • @John Kelly
    “Chris Bentley – you use a common tactic which is to pretend that this is a conflict with arguments on both sides. ”

    And I believe you, as usual, use the argument that there is no wrongdoing on the Palestinian side. I will happily condemn Israel and applaud the Security Council Resolution, but I believe both Hamas and the Israeli regime to be guilty of Crimes against humanity (for their deliberate targeting of civilians) whereas you will happily ignore or excuse the actions of Palestinians. Hamas are part of the problem.

    As for quoting the governance of the twin cities 2000 years ago shall we hand it all back to the Italians, who took it from the Jews, who took it from…… etc. etc. etc. This whole issue will never be settled if we arbitrarily pick a moment in time as it will disadvantage one side over another.

  • While I agree there is plenty of blame to go round for both sides, I do think that the possibility of a peaceful solution is almost entirely in the hands of Israel now. Despite the rhetoric from the more extreme Palestinian elements, I’m sure they (and all the ordinary Palestinian people) would grab a two-state solution based on the 1967 borders with both hands.

    But every new settlement is a step away from a viable two-state solution. Since everyone knows this, it’s difficult not to conclude that the Israeli Government doesn’t want a two-state solution. Since a one-state solution with Israeli citizenship for the Palestinians isn’t on the table either, only continued conflict remains.

  • Invoking religious aspects is another flaw in John Kelly’s piece, the one clear thing the Israeli regime has in it’s favour over the Jordanian annexation (because they had annexed the West Bank and had no intention of allowing a free Palestinian state there) is the freedom of religions to worship at the various Holy sites. Jews were prohibited from praying at Wall during the Jordanian occupation and they destroyed ancient Jewish graveyards. Despite it being on the site of their original Temple Israel have left the Dome under the control of Muslims and allow access to Christians to their holy sites.

    Israel are utterly wrong to build the settlements, but to ignore the wrongdoing of other parties is a folly that will hinder rather than help any eventual peace. The Israeli state and any future Palestinian one must be able to be secured, my preference would be a permanent UN Force.

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