Bethlehem, Mon 24.12.07, Afternoon
Bethlehem Day before Christmas, Monday 24.12.07, from noon until evening
Special Report for Christmas.
“Let your heads be lifted up, O doors; be lifted up, O you eternal doors: that the King of glory may come in” (Psalms, 24:7)
This verse is the basis for a famous German song, which is sung during the weeks leading to Christmas. The original verse, which is sung in synagogues on Jewish holidays as the bible is put back in the ark, refers to the revelation of God; the Christian interpretation refers to the birth of Christ, who is about to be born in order to establish the kingdom of God. At the Bethlehem Checkpoint there was neither God nor his kingdom on earth. However, the opening of the gate that now blocked what used to be the main entrance to Bethlehem has become such a rare occurrence, that its opening offered a kind of miraculous look into a tightly sealed world. The gate was open to allow the passage to the person considered by his followers to be God’s representative on earth – the Latin Patriarch and his entourage. Everyday mortal people had to pass through the checkpoint.
The road to Bethlehem and the checkpoint were decorated for the holiday. Hebron Road, all the way from the outskirts of the Arnona neighborhood, was decorated, as every year, with appropriate holiday lighting. Rows of hanging stars were hung and below them big Israeli flags, leaving no doubt as who controls united Jerusalem - beyond the green line. At the checkpoint itself two new signs were added to the usual signs stating “Jerusalem – Bethlehem, Love and peace” positioned by the vehicle crossing. The signs were printed in English and wished everyone a Marry Christmas and Happy New Year from the Israeli Department of Tourism. By the pedestrian crossing a sign with a picture of David’s Tower offered best wishes for the holidays in Hebrew, Arabic, English, French, German, Italian and Russian. The Hebrew version went like this: “Best wishes and warm regards for the holiday season – Christmas, Hanukkah and Adha. May this holiday season be marked by the continuation of prosperity and peace (so does this mean it already exists??).” The statements in European languages did not get entangled with the Jewish and Muslim holidays and simply wished everyone (with a few spelling mistakes) a happy new year, that will bring with it prosperity and peace for all good willed people.
Early morning was a regular day in the checkpoint. The Ecumenical Accompaniers phoned around 8:00 am to report the other side of the checkpoint was closed with several hundred people anxious to get to Jerusalem waiting. Several minutes later the checkpoint was opened again, and at noon time there was a constant flow of pedestrians both ways. Many vehicles were entering Bethlehem because for this holiday Christian Israelis were allowed into the Forbidden City in zone A. Jews were not allowed in and to make it clear a sign read “Entrance to Palestinian Territories, no Israelis allowed”. Identification of all private vehicle passengers was verified. The busses and commercial vehicles were not checked as seriously.
All this was happening in the background. The reason that brought so many army officers and the police forces to the area, and for the massive police presence all along Hebron road with large numbers of them around Mar Elias monastery was the arrival to Bethlehem of Mishel Sabah, the Latin Patriarch and head of the Roman-Catholic Christians in the Holly land.
Acourding to the official flyer detailing the Christmas ceremonies to be held, the head of the Catholic community of Bethlehem and representatives form Bethlehem, Beit Gala, and Beit Sahur would be welcoming the Patriarch at Rachel’s Tomb at 13:00 pm. The reception will be followed, half an hour later, by a festive entrance to the Church of the Nativity. The wording of the flyer reminds of the days in which the Rachel’s Tomb symbolized the entrance to the city, and it was expected of the city elders to meet honorary guests and escort them into the city. Nowadays there is a checkpoint blocking the road, Israeli officers have to arrange for the entrance of the patriarch to Bethlehem and Rachel’s Tomb is hidden behind a wall, separated from the city, serving as a place of worship only for Jews. All this is not mentioned in the flyer. It is the nature of church politics, as it is with the “enlightened occupation” to conduct such affairs while disregarding the ugly reality.
At 12:15pm the big gray gate opened, moving aside as if touched by a magic hand, and exposed for a moment the life behind the wall. Five minutes later a convoy of distinguished members of the community emerges, on their way to meet the Patriarch in a place that is not shadowed by a checkpoint or a wall – the Mar Alias Monastery. The monastery is located between Jerusalem and Bethlehem; in the only unbuilt area between these two cities, where the rocky ground and ancient olive trees can remind someone of the days of Jesus. The convoy is led by a white car belonging to the civil administration, which is flying – a very large and very visible – Israeli flag.
The drive to Mar Elias takes only 2-3 minutes, but by the time everyone greets everyone and the convoy slowly drives back to Bethlehem, much time has passed. Meanwhile cars are still allowed to drive through the checkpoint, but they are no longer allowed to park at the sides of the road. At some stage the exit of cars towards Jerusalem is stopped and it is safe to assume that a long line forms. A group of police and military officers is standing in the middle of the road.
At 12:50 the gate reopens and the 15 minutes later the road is empty of cars that are not related to the ceremonies – a “sterile” area in military lingo. A convoy of about 50 cars approaches. It is led by a border police jeep, a police car, and again the civil administration car with its giant flag, next comes the Patriarch’s car with a green flag that is even bigger than the blue and white one. They are followed by dignified guests from Bethlehem and Jerusalem and by regular Christians who came to celebrate and got caught up in the convoy. The original order was to only let VIP’s through the gates, but the officers realize that trying to enforce this will disrupt the advancement of the convoy. One or two regular buses that operate on the Jerusalem-Bethlehem line have snuck into the convoy, but the drivers are immediately ordered to offload their passengers. These are the first wave of workers returning from their day’s labor. For them the road remains closed, despite the fact that the gate is open. They will have to go through the checkpoint, the revolving door and the security checks just like every other day.
The first convoy that came through was not the main convoy with the Patriarch; this arrived at 13:20. The Patriarch’s car is surrounded by five mounted border policemen carrying border police banners. The Patriarch, Mishel Sabach, is sitting inside the car with a sealed face; he does not look to the sides of the car. The mounted policemen halt when they reach the gate. Perhaps this is some sort of symbolic gesture – symbolizing the passage from one jurisdiction to another. The Civil Administration’s car, with its giant flag, does not stop and trespasses the border into Bethlehem.
At 15:00 we returned to the checkpoint. The ceremony is over, the people at the checkpoint are workers who want to get home and tourists who wish to go to the Church of Nativity. We had already seen some groups who were making their way from Jerusalem to Bethlehem along the Hebron way. The vehicle crossing at the checkpoint was still busy. There were giant bags filled with candies – a gift from the Ministry of Tourism. There were many officers present to make sure that traffic flows smoothly. Here and there we could overhear soldiers on the radio who were not sure if to let certain groups of people holding Israeli ID’s through. Every now and then there we could hear a report stating the number of people who passed through – Israeli’s and tourists were counted separately.
While the officers were focusing on the vehicle crossing, at the pedestrian crossing the “normal” everyday reality of workers coming home had resumed. An organized and disciplined line had grown from 15 people to 45 people within 15 minutes outside the security checkpoint. The guard would send in people in groups of five in order to keep the bulk of people and of the pressure outside and not in the building. When the guard noticed a few tourists standing in line – not so orderly, since they weren’t familiar with the “drill” and did not know that those who disobeyed the rules usually were kicked out of the line – he let them in quicker. Inside the checkpoint there were only two open checking booths: one towards Jerusalem and one towards Hebron. The number of workers was still relatively small. Within half an hour many more would arrive and the lines would lengthen.
The heads of the civil administration were standing near the vehicle crossing and this was an opportunity to complain directly to them. “There are only two or three people over there”, they claimed. When we invited them to come over and count for themselves, they answered that they weren’t allowed to enter the checkpoint. But suddenly, a “Christmas miracle” occurred and one open checking booth towards Bethlehem turned into five and even six booths. The line outside disappeared and even before the checking booth there were no more than 5-10 people who were quickly discharged. Even at the height of the pressure, between 4:00 and 5:00 pm, when dozens of workers arrived in consecutive waves, traffic continued to pass easily, and apart from an occasional soldier barking an order at a “Palestinian” everything flowed nicely.
When they arrived at the checkpoint, the workers in the buses were not aware that there were no lines and that traffic was flowing quickly. As a result we saw again and again people running from their cars in order to try and get ahead of their friends and gain a few minutes. This is how the occupation turns people into self-centered and focused on their daily troubles. When the workers saw that there was no line a smile appeared on their faces, perhaps out of happiness, perhaps laughing at themselves.
At 5:30 pm two checking booths closed down. Traffic had slowed down to a trickle. We returned to Jerusalem on the Hebron road. The full moon cast its light over a sea of shining golden stars, while the flags remained in darkness. For a moment there was an illusion of peace and tranquility, and one could mistakenly think that the words of the angels who, according to Christian tradition, blessed baby Jesus: “Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace, good will toward men.” (Luke, 2:14) came true.