TEL AVIV – Like clockwork, every year at this time reporters file misleading and, in some cases, outright false reports about the state of Christmas in Bethlehem.
They claim Israeli policies have wreaked havoc on the city’s economy and that Israel is responsible for the massive flight of Christians from Bethlehem. Yet the news media completely ignore Muslim intimidation and get their facts wrong on documented history and the true state of affairs in this ancient town.
A widely circulated Reuters article, for example, laments “Christmas cheer hasn’t spread to all of Bethlehem’s residents,” squarely blaming “an Israeli wall” for the town’s misfortunes.
Britains’ Press and Journal also paints a dismal picture of Bethlehem, claiming the city is “divided by a huge wall” and that the “26ft-high security wall completes the isolation of Bethlehem and prevents it from ever expanding.”
The piece also wrongly states that about 2 percent of Bethlehem’s population is Christian.
An opinion piece by Austen Ivereigh in the London Guardian, meanwhile, also claims Bethlehem is “shuttered and depressed” by an “Israeli separation wall.”
“I don’t just mean the structure itself – 30 feet high, bristling with watchtowers and formed of grey concrete slabs – but where it is built, deep into the town itself, far into the West Bank, severing Bethlehem from Jerusalem and ensuring the relentless expansion eastwards of Jewish-only settlements built on land seized from Palestinian farmers,” the Guardian piece claims.
Regarding the “wall” that “surrounds” Bethlehem: Israel built a fence in 2002 in the area where northern Bethlehem interfaces with Jerusalem. A tiny segment of the barrier, facing a major Israeli roadway, is a concrete wall that Israel says is meant to prevent gunmen from shooting at Israeli motorists.
Israel had good reason to build the wall in that one small area, since terrorists in 2000 and 2001 routinely shot and killed Israeli motorists at the adjacent roadway.
The rest of Bethlehem is not encircled by any wall or fence. Actually, unless one enters the city from the area interfacing Jerusalem, a traveler coming in from any other entrance will not even encounter the barrier.
The barrier, most of which is a fence, was constructed after the outbreak of the Palestinian intifada, or terror war, launched after the late PLO leader Yasser Arafat turned down an Israeli offer of a Palestinian state.
Scores of deadly suicide bombings and shooting attacks against Israelis were planned in Bethlehem and carried out by Bethlehem-area terrorists.
At one point during a period of just 30 days in 2002, at least 14 shootings were perpetrated by Bethlehem cells of Arafat’s Al Aqsa Martyrs Brigades terrorists, killing two Israelis and wounding six.
Many times Muslim gunmen in the Bethlehem area reportedly took positions in civilian homes in the hilltops of Christian Beit Jala, which straddles Bethlehem. Beit Jala afforded the terrorists a clear firing line at southern sections of Jerusalem and at a major Israeli highway below, drawing Israeli military raids and the eventual building of the security barrier there.
Another popular theme of the mainstream media in recent years is that Bethlehem’s Christian population is dwindling because of the “barrier.”
Amazingly, Ivereigh’s piece in the Guardian falsely claimed: “Bethlehem is shuttered and depressed not because of Koran-wielding thugs but because the wall has smashed its economy. The town has become a ghetto, severed from lands to the north and west by the wall, and to the south and east by settler-only roads and a forest of checkpoints, leaving it barely able to trade.”
Simple demographic facts disprove this contention entirely. Israel built the barrier seven years ago. But Bethlehem’s Christian population started to drastically decline in 1995, the very year Arafat’s Palestinian Authority took over the holy Christian city in line with the U.S.-backed Oslo Accords.
Bethlehem was more than 80 percent Christian when Israel was founded in 1948. But after Arafat took control, the city’s Christian population plummeted to its current 23 percent. And that statistic is considered generous since it includes the satellite towns of Beit Sahour and Beit Jala. Some estimates place Bethlehem’s actual Christian population as low as 12 percent, with hundreds of Christians emigrating each year.
As soon as he took over Bethlehem, Arafat unilaterally fired the city’s Christian politicians and replaced them with Muslim cronies. He appointed a Muslim governor, Muhammed Rashad A-Jabar, and deposed of Bethlehem’s city council, which had nine Christians and two Muslims, reducing the number of Christians councilors to a 50-50 split.
Arafat then converted a Greek Orthodox monastery next to the Church of Nativity, the believed birthplace of Jesus, into his official Bethlehem residence.
Suddenly, after the Palestinians gained the territory, reports of Christian intimidation by Muslims began to surface.
Christian leaders and residents told this reporter they face an atmosphere of regular hostility. They said Palestinian armed groups stir tension by holding militant demonstrations and marches in the streets. They spokes of instances in which Christian shopkeepers’ stores were ransacked and Christian homes attacked.
They said in the past, Palestinian gunmen fired at Israelis from Christian hilltop communities, drawing Israeli anti-terror raids to their towns.
In 2002, dozens of terrorists holed up inside the Church of the Nativity for 39 days while fleeing a massive Israeli anti-terror operation. Israel surrounded the church area but refused to storm the structure. Gunmen inside included wanted senior Hamas, Tanzim and Al Aqsa Martyrs’ Brigades terrorists reportedly involved in suicide bombings and shooting attacks. More than 200 nuns and priests were trapped in the church after Israeli hostage negotiators failed to secure their release.
Some Christian leaders said one of the most significant problems facing Christians in Bethlehem is the rampant confiscation of land by Muslim gangs.
“There are many cases in which Christians have their land stolen by the [Muslim] mafia,” Samir Qumsiyeh, a Bethlehem Christian leader and owner of the Beit Sahour-based private Al-Mahd (Nativity) TV station, told WND in an interview in 2007.
“It is a regular phenomenon in Bethlehem. They go to a poor Christian person with a forged power of attorney document, and then they say we have papers proving you’re living on our land. If you confront them, many times the Christian is beaten. You can’t do anything about it. The Christian loses, and he runs away,” Qumsiyeh told WND, speaking from his hilltop television station during a recent interview.
Qumsiyeh himself said he was targeted by Islamic gangs. He said his home was firebombed after he returned from a trip abroad during which he gave public speeches outlining the plight of Bethlehem’s Christian population.
One Christian Bethlehem resident told WND her friend recently fled Bethlehem after being accused by Muslims of selling property to Jews, a crime punishable by death in some Palestinian cities. The resident said much of the intimidation comes from gunmen associated with PA President Mahmoud Abbas’ Fatah organization.
A February 2007 Jerusalem Post article cited the case of Faud and Georgette Lama, Christian residents of Bethlehem who said their land was stolen by local Muslims, and when they tried to do something about it, Faud was beaten by gunmen.
One religious novelty store owner recently told WND that Muslim gangs regularly deface Christian property.
“We are harassed, but you wouldn’t know the truth. No one says anything publicly about the Muslims. This is why Christians are running away.”
Lastly, a main news media contention this year has asserted that the “wall” in Bethlehem has devastated the city’s economy. But last year scores of mainstream news reports documented how Bethlehem’s economy had its best year since 1999.
This year’s economic downturn in Bethlehem is largely due to the reliance of the city on tourism, which is down worldwide due to a global economic crisis – a fact not mentioned in a single news report that WND reviewed about Bethlehem’s woes.
Last year, even the New York Times was forced to admit Bethlehem’s economy was doing well. A Times article datelined Bethlehem was titled “Palestinians work to jolt West Bank back to life.”
The piece allows, “Both Israeli and Palestinian officials report economic growth for the occupied areas of 4 to 5 percent and a drop in the unemployment rate of at least three percentage points. The improved climate has nearly doubled the number of tourists in Bethlehem and increased them by half in Jericho.”
The Times quotes Victor Batarseh, the Palestinian mayor of Bethlehem, triumphantly declaring: “It has been the best year since 1999.”
“Our hotels are full, whereas three years ago there was almost nobody. Unemployment is below 20 percent,” he said.