JERUSALEM – As Christmas swiftly approaches, establishment media have begun to file misleading and, in some cases, outright false reports about the state of Christianity and life in Bethlehem.
Media are suggesting Israeli policies are responsible for the city’s economic downturn and that the Jewish state’s security measures have prompted the massive flight of Christians from Bethlehem.
The reports ignore the influence of Muslim intimidation.
One central theme is that a “wall” encircles Bethlehem.
In an article titled “Bethlehem strives for a normal Christmas,” the German newspaper Deutsche Welle claims “the city has been cut off since 2003, when Israel erected a security wall during the violence of the Second Intifada, which lasted four years, saying it was necessary to protect Israeli citizens from Palestinian terror attacks.”
The International Business Times similarly reported the “wall” cuts off the city.
The London Independent reported “Israeli military checkpoints and security barrier that separates Bethlehem from Jerusalem, a 10-minute drive away.”
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.
The Washington Post blamed Israel for the decline in Christians.
The Post reported: “While Nour lauded the monumental efforts to salvage the church, he said that without jobs and the ability to traverse Israeli checkpoints, the tiny community of West Bank Christians – whose numbers have been decimated by emigration over the decades – will eventually disappear, leaving only the churches.”
The International Business Times article similarly reported a “declining Christian population.”
“The Intifada subsided in 2005, but not before Israel began building its 400 mile-long separation barrier,” the newspaper continued, apparently implying Israeli policies were helping to drive out Christians.
Simple demographic facts disprove the contention entirely. Israel built the barrier 11 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 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 WND 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.
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. They 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 previously 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.”
Meanwhile, in reports this week, media coverage strongly has implied Israeli policies are causing Bethlehem’s economy to decline.
Deutsche Welle claimed: “Modern Bethlehem struggles under the occupation and what many see as Israel’s refusal to provide some sort of financial injection into the Palestinian economy in return for propping up its own tourism industry.”
The London Guardian reported: “Most visitors come by charter bus, however, and linger just long enough to peer into the grotto at the Church of the Nativity where Jesus is said to have been born. Few stop to buy a string of rosary beads, or enjoy a plate of hummus. Almost all spend the night at hotels inside Israel, which competes with Bethlehem for tourism dollars.”
The Atlantic went so far as to quote a local shopkeeper who said Israeli guides whisk away tourists.
“Tourists are whisked away, Awadallah says, because they nearly all come in groups led by Israeli guides,” The Atlantic reported.
Unreported is that under Palestinian control, most tourists don’t feel safe in Bethlehem.
Also largely ignored is the fact that the PA itself has announced tourist visits to Bethlehem are up this year, to about 1.6 million, with high hopes for an economic boom.
Like so many other cities, however, Bethlehem is tied to the global economy.
In 2009, while the same Israeli policies were in place, establishment news reports documented that Bethlehem’s economy had its best year since 1999.
In 2009 the New York Times reported: “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.