The Bethlehem checkpoint – as Christmas approaches
Lift up your heads, O ye gates: and be ye lift up, ye everlasting doors; and the King of Glory shall come in (Psalms, 24 vii)
The famous chorale from Handel's Messiah, based on these verses, is sung around the world as Christmas approaches. The original words - sung on Jewish holidays when the Torah scrolls are replaced in the ark – relate the divine revelation of Yahweh, while their Christian interpretation refers to the infant Jesus who will establish the Kingdom of God. At the Bethlehem checkpoint, we saw very little revelation and not much that recalled a holy kingdom. Nevertheless, the Christmas opening of the gate that for most of the year blocks what was once the main entrance to Bethlehem is such a rare phenomenon that it provided a quasi-miraculous glimpse into a closed-off world. Passage was restricted to Michel Sabbah, the Latin Patriarch of Jerusalem who is considered God's representative on earth – and the patriarch's entourage. Ordinary mortals, like they do every day, had to cope with the checkpoint.
The road to Bethlehem and the checkpoint were decorated for the season. Hebron Road, starting from the outskirts of the Arnona neighbourhood, was decorated like every year with Christmas lights. There was a row of decorative stars with large Israeli flags hanging underneath, to leave no doubt who was in charge here – in united Jerusalem, across the Green Line – the sovereign ruler. At the checkpoint itself, as well as the signs placed in the track for cars, reading "Jerusalem-Bethlehem * Love and Peace" – there were two signs bearing greetings in English from the Tourism Ministry for a Merry Christmas and Happy New Year. At the track for pedestrians was a sign with a picture of the Tower of David and season's greetings in Hebrew, Arabic, English, French, German, Italian and Russian. Its message was "Greetings for the Holiday Season - Christmas – Hanukkah - Id el Adha – may this holiday season herald a period of peace and prosperity". In the European languages, the Jewish and Muslim holidays were avoided and made do (with some spelling mistakes) with greetings for a New Year that would supply all humanity with goodwill, peace, and prosperity.
Early in the morning, it was an ordinary day for all purposes, with the usual checkpoint-and-queue routine, with hundreds of people intent on reaching Jerusalem. At the car-track, there was considerable traffic en route to Bethlehem. In honour of the holiday, Israeli Christians were allowed to enter the Forbidden City - which is in Area A. To prevent any delusionary chance of a Jewish Israeli "slipping into" Bethlehem a large sign was erected, reading "Entrance to the Palestinian Authority. No entry for Israelis". The identity cards of passengers in private cars were checked, but less attention was paid to the buses and Transit vans.
All this activity, however, was unfolding in background. The main event was the entry to Bethlehem of Michel Sabbah, the Latin Patriarch and head of Roman Catholic Christians in the Holy Land. And that was what had brought the army and police officers here, and had caused the deploying of police officers along the Hebron Road, as well as the massive police presence next to the Mar Elias monastery.
According to the official brochure describing the Christmas ceremony, his Beatitude would be welcomed at 13:00 by the Catholic priest of Bethlehem and representatives of the towns of Bethlehem, Beit Jala, and Beit Sahur at Rachel's Tomb. Half an hour later there would be a festive entrance into the Church of the Nativity. The wording reminded us of the days when Rachel's Tomb symbolised the entrance to Bethlehem and was the fitting place for a local VIPs to meet and welcome honoured guests to their city. Today there is a checkpoint that must be crossed, Israeli officers are organising the Patriarch's visit to Bethlehem, and Rachel's Tomb is hidden away behind a wall, and serves as a place of prayer for Jews only, with a separate entrance. None of this appeared in the description of the ceremony. It is the nature of church diplomacy, like the 'enlightened occupation' policy of conducting affairs by ignoring reality.
At 12:15 the grey metal gate moved aside as if by a magician, revealing a momentary glimpse of life behind the wall. Five minutes later, the entourage of waiting dignitaries would welcome the Patriarch set out for a place not overshadowed by the checkpoint and the wall – the Mar Elias monastery, midway between Jerusalem and Bethlehem, in the only open area between the two towns. The ancient olive trees growing in the rocky terrain can evoke the times of Jesus. Heading the entourage was a white Civil Administration car, flying a particularly high and extremely large blue-and-white flag.
The drive to Mar Elias takes two or three minutes, but it took some time until everyone had welcomed everyone else and the convoy started slowly moving off towards Bethlehem. A group of army and police officers stood in the middle of the road. At 12:50 the gate was reopened, and 15 minutes later the road was empty of any cars which had no role in the ceremony - what the army calls a 'sterile zone'. The convoy, about 50 cars, drew closer. At its head was a Border Police Jeep, a police vehicle, and that civil administration car with its huge flag. Immediately afterwards came the Patriarch's car - flying a green flag slightly bigger than the blue-and-white flag. Next were dignitaries from Bethlehem and Jerusalem, as well as Christians intent on celebrating in Bethlehem and who were caught in the convoy. Originally, the directive was to allow only VIPs to cross through the gates, and to divert others to the checkpoint. The officers realised that the separation would hamper the convoy's progress, so they permitted everyone to cross through the main road. Even one or two Jerusalem - Bethlehem buses had managed to sneak into the convoy, but their drivers were immediately told to let their passengers off at the side. The passengers were the first labourers returning from a hard day's work. Although the gate was still open, for them it was as good as locked: they had to cross to the other side of the wall, by way of the checks, the turnstiles, and checkpoint gates – as they do every day.
That wasn't the main convoy, though. The Patriarch's car arrived at 13:20, surrounded by five Border Police horsemen holding Border Police and Israeli banners in their hands. Michel Sabbah was seated in the car, expressionless, looking straight ahead. The riders halted in front of the gate, a gesture hinting that this was where Israeli sovereignty terminated and another sovereignty took over. Nevertheless, the Civil Administration car, its huge flag aloft, crossed the border into Bethlehem.
At 15:00 we returned to the checkpoint. No ceremony now: the labourers simply wanted to go home and the tourists wanted to get to the Church of the Nativity. On the Hebron Road, we had already seen some groups on their way from Jerusalem to Bethlehem. At the checkpoint car-track, there was still considerable traffic bound for Bethlehem. Huge bags of sweets were handed out - a holiday gift to tourists, courtesy of the Tourism Ministry. Lots of officers were in place, to ensure that things went smoothly. Now and then, via the soldiers' communication system, we overheard that they weren't sure whether or not if they should allow a group with blue identity cards to enter Bethlehem. And every so often announcements were made about the number of people who had crossed – separate statistics provided for Israelis and foreigners.
While the officers were showing interest in the cars crossing over, at the pedestrian-crossing the 'usual' situation was developing as the labourers started returning home. A disciplined queue that rapidly grew from 15 to 45 people waited at the entrance to the checking area. Every so often, the security-company guard at the entrance would let five people in to ensure that the main pressure would be outside, not inside. When tourists were in the queue (not as disciplined as the labourers, because they were unfamiliar with the checkpoint rule "If you don't behave properly, you don't go through") the guards let them in faster.
Inside there was only one checking-position towards Bethlehem and one towards Jerusalem. So far there were only a few labourers, while in half an hour's time there would be many more, and the queues much longer. The Civil Administration heads were standing by the car-crossing, so we had an opportunity to lodge complaints with them directly. "There are only two or three people there", they said, and we invited them to come see for themselves. They weren't allowed to enter the checkpoint, they replied. But suddenly there was a Christmas miracle and one position towards Bethlehem grew into five and eventually six positions. The queue outside dispersed as if it had never been. Processing was quick, even at the peak time between 16:00 and 17:00, when scores of labourers arrived. Now and then a soldier's nerves snapped...and we heard the growled "Magnetic" from the hall, when the exhausted labourers failed to quickly present their magnetic card that allows them to go through the crossing.
Once the labourers reached the checkpoint and exited the buses and Transit vans, they didn't know of course that there was no queue and no need to fight for a good place. So we constantly saw men running from cars to the checkpoint hoping to overtake their friends and save themselves some waiting time. This is how the occupation forces people to focus on themselves and their individual struggle to survive each day. When they saw that there was no queue, many smiled, perhaps out of happiness and maybe laughing at themselves.
At 17:30 two positions were closed. Traffic dwindled. We drove back to Jerusalem under the full moon, along the Hebron Road under the golden light of the star decorations, with the flags below in the dark. For a moment there was an illusion of a serene holiday atmosphere like in the Christian world. You could be fooled into thinking that the words of the angels blessing the baby born in Bethlehem – "Glory to God in the highest and on earth peace, good will toward men" (Luke, 2: xiv) had actually come true.