Sunday, December 25, 2005

What's life like in Bethlehem on Christmas?

For Palestinians in Bethlehem, season offers little to celebrate
Christmas is fast approaching and the birth of Jesus will be joyously celebrated by over a billion Christians around the globe, gathering with family and friends in prayer, joy and reflection. Christmas trees will be adorned and festively wrapped gifts will tease children. The story of the Nativity will be retold thousands of times, scenes of the humble birth will be recreated in endless displays and Christmas pageants will commemorate the blessed event around the world.

Although a Muslim, I, too, participate in the beautiful festivities of Christmas. In elementary school in America, I sang carols with the school choir, performed in concerts and joined the annual visit to Dearborn's historic Greenfield Village that depicts American life in centuries gone by. One of my favorite carols since that time is Silent Night, which captures the atmosphere at the time of Christ's birth and reflects the true spirit of Christmas.
While I happily participated in these activities, my teachers, and the world, did not acknowledge the Palestinian connection to this blessed holiday. There I was, a Palestinian, born in Jerusalem, a few miles from Bethlehem where Jesus was born. Singing to people with no knowledge of Palestinians and our link to Bethlehem and Jesus always seemed very strange and still does.

For our audiences, it was always about Israel: "How nice a visit to the Israeli town of Bethlehem would be," people said, ignoring the fact that Bethlehem is a Palestinian town where Palestinian Christians and Muslims live, tormented and imprisoned under Israel's brutal military occupation.

We were singing O Little Town of Bethlehem to people who had absolutely no idea that thousands of desperate people live in Bethlehem's refugee camps. To our audience, Bethlehem was the idyllic scene found on Christmas cards.

I knew the truth: Palestinians in Bethlehem's refugee camps have lived in abject poverty ever since being expelled from their homes in 1948 during the creation of the state of Israel. Today, ringed by Jewish settlements and the 30-foot high concrete wall that strangles Palestinian cities and villages, Bethlehem is virtually cut off from the rest of Palestine, its lands, water and other resources expropriated by Israel in a relentless effort to make life ever more unbearable for the Palestinians who call it home.

How fitting that the Virgin Mary, seeking refuge from the mighty Roman army and a safe place to give birth, came to this town.
Today, pregnant Palestinian women must endure the degrading Israeli checkpoints in order to reach a hospital. While the Virgin Mary found refuge in a humble stable, many contemporary mothers-to-be are forced to stand endless hours at checkpoints manned by teenage soldiers who couldn't care less about a woman in labor. Many have given birth in taxis or in streets choked with dust in summer and swimming with mud in winter, waiting at checkpoints for a soldier to arbitrarily decide whether they "look pregnant or only fat." And many children and mothers have died when not allowed to pass in time.

The birth of a human being is a momentous and joyous occasion for the parents, even those who suffer the pain and anxiety of checkpoint deliveries. Still, a growing number of Palestinian infants are named "Hajez" (from the Arabic for "checkpoint") as a bitter reminder of their birthplace.
I fail to grasp what benefit such inhumanity bestows upon the Jewish state. The bitter truth is that 2,000 years after Mary gave birth to Jesus under Roman occupation, Palestinian mothers in Bethlehem and elsewhere in occupied Palestine still seek safe refuge to deliver their infants.
So, when you hear O Little Town of Bethlehem this Christmas, pause to remember the Palestinians for whom this town is home. The Christian and Muslim children of Palestine will observe Christmas this year, but they will have little to celebrate behind the high concrete walls that imprison them.
Fear and hunger will keep them awake through the night, not the anticipation of gifts as in other lands. While the rest of the world celebrates, Bethlehem's children, like all Palestinian children, will pray for some brief respite from the fright of the killings, abuse and destruction that is life in Palestine.

Mike Odetalla emigrated from the Middle East in 1969 when he was 8 years old, following the 1967 Arab-Israeli war. He returns to the Middle East every summer to visit with relatives. He has lived in Canton for 27 years.
Originally published December 22, 2005