Having attended two Catholic schools, I have performed in my fair share of school nativity plays; I have made odd-looking papier-mâché interpretations of the gathering around the manger at nursery and I have sung “O Little Town of Bethlehem” at innumerable masses. As Christmas time is drawing near, you would be hard pressed to avoid such practices as you switch on your television, log into your facebook or nip to the shops to buy your bread.
Bethlehem entices masses of adherents of different faiths for obvious reasons. As I was sipping on my mint lemonade drink in Manger square and watching the world go by, I couldn’t help feeling that the flocks of tourists scurrying after their tour guide were completely oblivious to the reality of Bethlehem.
The frustration is that in Bethlehem, the occupation is all too obvious: first you have the 26ft high concrete apartheid wall, then you have occupation soldiers carrying m16s, then you have Israeli illegal settlements scattered across Bethlehem’s hilltops and finally to top it all off there are the refugee camps – forgive me, but this seems the antithesis of “holy land”.
We stayed in Dheisheh refugee camp, one of three main refugee camps in Bethlehem. Within a year of the Nakba in 1948 when over 700,000 Palestinians were expelled from their homes, Dheisheh was established to serve 3000 refugees. Today, almost 70 years later, the number of residents has reached almost 15000. Over time, tents were replaced by shacks, then shacks replaced by buildings, resulting in irregular street structures and very narrow alleys.
Water shortages, electricity cuts and sanitation problems are rife in the camp. Just one Health centre and four schools serve the whole area. Unemployment is a big problem. Another major setback for residents is that despite being under full Palestinian control (Area A), Israeli Occupation Forces still conduct frequent violent incursions, attacks and arrests inside the camp – sometimes several times a week. They use tear gas, sound bombs, rubber coated metal bullets and live ammunition against residents, often in night raids where snipers will attack from rooftops. As we were winding our way up through the camp, we saw murals of young boys and men killed in such attacks. I watched children playing on the streets and I wondered what scenes they have been subject to; if they can actually sleep at night knowing that monsters really do come out in the dark.
The next day we walked along the apartheid wall. Erected in 2002, it is over twice as high as the Berlin wall was. The graffiti and personal accounts written on the walls were overwhelming but I’ll let the pictures and accounts speak for themselves:
Please don’t forget the real Bethlehem this Christmas. #freepalestine