23 December '12..
Every year around this time, it’s the same tired old story. A journalist attempts to find a Christmas angle for Palestinian suffering, most often focusing on Bethlehem’s Palestinian Christian residents. This year is no different and Harriet Sherwood of The Guardian and sister Sunday paper The Observer is the journalist filling the seasonal role.
The Guardian regularly trashes or undermines Jewish historical claims to the land of Israel that go back to biblical times. Why is it, however, that the same paper has no problem promoting the claims of Palestinians using biblical imagery to buttress the case if those Palestinians happen to be Christian?
Sherwood’s Observer piece “Bethlehem Christians feel the squeeze as Israeli settlements spread” begins with the subhead:
Near a biblical landscape of donkeys and olive trees, homes are being built and Palestinian Christians fear for their future.
Referring to the Jerusalem suburbs of Gilo and Har Homa as “settlements”, Sherwood claims that “Both are largely built on Bethlehem land.” In reality, much of Gilo’s land was legally purchased by Jews in the 1930s while most of Har Homa’s land was Jewish owned dating back to the 1940s.
If Sherwood’s history is faulty, then so is her geography. According to her:
Bethlehem is now surrounded by 22 settlements, including Nokdim, where the hardline former Israeli foreign minister Avigdor Lieberman lives, and Neve Daniel, home to public diplomacy minister Yuli Edelstein.
Sherwood is evidently trying to make a political point considering that both Nokdim and Neve Daniel are both tiny in comparison to the Bethlehem region and are located at least 10km away from the center of Bethlehem and are themselves surrounded by Arab settlements. In addition, Neve Daniel is part of the Gush Etzion bloc of settlements, a region where the core Jewish villages had been founded in the 1940s on land purchased by Jews in the 1920s and 30s and destroyed before the 1948 War of Independence. Most observers believe Gush Etzion would be annexed to Israel in the event of a peace deal with the Palestinians.
But the crux of Sherwood’s piece can be summed up as follows:
In the birthplace of Jesus, the impact of Israeli settlements and their growth has been devastating.
While Christians now make up a minority of Bethlehem’s residents, Sherwood’s piece gives the impression that Israel is chiefly responsible for the plight of the Christian community there. She talks about the Palestinian suburb of Beit Jala and the Israeli security barrier without mentioning the security situation there during the last Palestinian intifada. One of the chief reasons that the security barrier was built in the first place was in order to keep out Palestinian suicide bombers from entering Jerusalem from the Bethlehem region while Beit Jala was used as a firing position for Palestinian gunmen shooting at Israeli civilians in their Gilo homes during the early 2000s.
As for the decline of the Christian population:
Over recent decades Christians have left Bethlehem in their thousands, and now are a minority in a city they once dominated. In 2008 Christians accounted for 28% of Bethlehem city’s population of about 25,000. The daily grind of living under occupation, with few opportunities, little hope and the violence of the Palestinian uprising 10 years ago are cited as the chief reasons for departure.
But as the Associated Press stated in its own story on Bethlehem at Christmas this time last year:
The number of Christians in the West Bank is on the decline. While some leave for economic reasons, many speak of persecution by the Muslim majority, but always anonymously, fearing retribution.
Christians have even lost their majority in Bethlehem, where more than two-thirds of the some 50,000 Palestinian residents are now Muslim.
And as the Wall St. Journal wrote exactly three years ago:
On the rare occasion that Western media cover the plight of Christians in the Palestinian territories, it is often to denounce Israel and its security barrier. Yet until Palestinian terrorist groups turned Bethlehem into a safe haven for suicide bombers, Bethlehemites were free to enter Israel, just as many Israelis routinely visited Bethlehem.
The other truth usually ignored by the Western press is that the barrier helped restore calm and security not just in Israel, but also in the West Bank including Bethlehem. The Church of the Nativity, which Palestinian gunmen stormed and defiled in 2002 to escape from Israeli security forces, is now filled again with tourists and pilgrims from around the world.
Indeed, why didn’t Harriet Sherwood consider this in an article she wrote for The Guardian only a few days earlier where she states that it is likely to be a record year for tourism to Bethlehem? Instead, “officials say the local tourist industry still faces huge hurdles as a result of Israel’s continued occupation of the West Bank.”
If you want a more balanced story examining the situation of Bethlehem’s Christians, you could do worse than read this piece in the Sunday Telegraph.
As we asked last year, how many more years will we have to deal with the politicization and abuse of Christmas by the media? Thanks to The Guardian, yet another year has proven to be the case.
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