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Coping with Christmas in Bethlehem

The Palestinian Authority decided to spend $50,000 on Christmas decorations in Bethlehem this year. The decoration committee is headed by city council member Zoughbi Zoughbi, who is excited about the prospect of lighting up this small city just south of … Read More

By / December 24, 2008

The Palestinian Authority decided to spend $50,000 on Christmas decorations in Bethlehem this year. The decoration committee is headed by city council member Zoughbi Zoughbi, who is excited about the prospect of lighting up this small city just south of Jerusalem. However, apart from Mr. Zoughbi, seven other council members, and the mayor, very few Christians remain here: over 80% of the population today is Muslim. 60 years ago, the Muslim-Christian ratio was the exact opposite.

When I discuss this with Mr. Zoughbi, he blames Israel. It’s the occupation, the checkpoints, the wall (a.k.a. the West Bank security barrier), and the settlements that make life in Bethlehem unbearable for Christians. As he utters every cliche about the suffering of the Palestinian people at the hands of the Jews, I gaze through his window at the settlement of Har Homa that towers on a neighboring hilltop. Yep, it must really suck to lose. 

Mr. Zoughbi scoffs when I try to interject with a question about Muslim persecution of Christians. "Such talk just plays into the hands of the Zionists." Obviously. "The occupation is like a cancer, while any tension between Muslims and Christians is comparable to a small cut in the finger," he says.

Let’s take a peek at that small cut: intimidation, beatings, land theft, firebombing of churches and other Christian institutions, denial of employment, economic boycotts, torture, kidnapping, forced marriage, sexual harassment, and extortion. In confidence Palestinian Christians tell me that they are not running away from an economy ruined by the Jews, but from the Palestinian Authority and the increasingly intolerant Muslim society that surrounds them. "You are not seeing any Muslims running away, are you?" one Christian man asks me with a bitter grin. Off the record, of course. One would imagine that Muslims would make up a considerable part of the Palestinians leaving Bethlehem if the economic situation were indeed so bad as everybody willing to go on record claims, but they are not. Even the Palestinian propagandists can’t get their head around this glaring fact, they start mumbling about Christians being more sensitive to economic pressure before changing the subject back to the occupation. 

If anything, the economy in Bethlehem is booming. This year has seen a 96.5% increase in tourism compared to last year, surpassing even the number of tourists that came before the Second Intifada. The average day wage among West Bank Palestinians has increased with 24% this year, and all the hotels in Bethlehem are fully booked over Christmas, allegedly a common problem in this shoddy little town.

After having spent three days in Bethlehem talking to Christians about the situation, any semblance of a Christmas spirit that I have tried to work up is gone. The people I talk to are either too terrified to go on record, or they lie to protect themselves and their families. As I approach the border terminal where Israeli soldiers routinely humiliate Palestinians for fun, I come across a black Hummer outside of a store selling Christmas ornaments. The owner brags that he payed 600,000 shekels for it. That equals $125,000. What a ripoff, I bet it was a Jew that made him pay twice of what it is worth.

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