Bethlehem 2007 A.D.

Michael Finkel, National Geographic, Italy
Dec 15 2007

The birthplace of Jesus is today one of the most contentious places
on Earth. Israelis fear Bethlehem’s radicalized residents, who seethe
at the concrete wall that surrounds them.

This is 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 Jerusalem.

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 Bethlehem.

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 deeds.

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.

At the 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 of ground.

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.

He was 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.

The 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 holster.

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."

One 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 native soil.

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.

Before 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

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.

The 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 Israel existed.

"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."

At two 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 journalist. "Cafes were blowing up;
buses were blowing up. But no longer. The wall is very important-it’s
protecting us. Thank God there is a wall."

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 the day.

The most 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 church.

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."

"We are 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 cheek."

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 in Bethlehem.

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."

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