When Israel relinquished control of Bethlehem to Yasser Arafat and the Palestinian Authority as part of the Oslo Accord agreement in 1995, 85% of this prosperous town were middle class Christians. Business and life was good when it was part of Israel.
By Christmas 2019, Christians are less than 10% of the population in an economically stricken town.
How did this come about?
In 1995, Elias Freij was that the last Christian mayor of Bethlehem. He appealed to Israeli Prime Minister, Yizchak Rabin, not to withdraw from the city as part of the Accords due to his fear for the future of Christians in Bethlehem. Rabin wanted an official and public statement from the mayor to that effect to take into his negotiations. Freij and the church authorities refused Rabin’s request, and the rest is a tragic page in Christian history.
The Palestinian leadership blame the “security wall” for the current situation. They talk of Israel turning Bethlehem into “a prison.”
The British artist, Banksy, has advanced his reputation in left-wing circles by promoting propaganda graffiti scrawled on walls throughout Bethlehem. He has even built a hotel in Bethlehem called the Walled-Off Hotel which is full of imagery of Israeli negativity such as a nativity scene in front of a section of security wall with a shattered bullet hole which he calls “The Scar of Bethlehem.”
All this propaganda scandalizes Israel and projects Palestinians as oppressed victims.
Nowhere in Banksy’s work is there a mention of Palestinian terror promoted and rewarded by the Palestinian Authority, a prolonged terror campaign that has murdered hundreds of Israel and made the security barrier a necessity, or the threatening behavior of Palestinian Muslims that has driven out most of the town’s Christians.
Today, at Christmas 2019, Bethlehem is a once Christian town, with important churches, holy relics and sanctuaries, and a few Christians that live in fear not of Israel, but of Muslim Arabs.
The Christians I once knew had businesses such as tourist shops selling olive wood carvings and religious symbolism to tourists. They are gone. Their homes and the shops now occupied by their Muslim neighbors.
The Palestinians will tell you it’s all Israel’s fault. They are, after all, the perennial victim. It’s become and industry for them. This image sells as much as Banksy’s souvenirs in Bethlehem.
But is this the truth?
The Palestinians wanted a separation from Israel and when Israel gave it to them, they used the vacated territories to relaunch their terror campaign against Israeli civilians, killing thousands.
In the name of peace, Bethlehem was the sixth town that Israel vacated and put under Palestinian rule following its withdrawal from Jericho, Jenin, Tulkarm, Nablus and Kalkilya.
Initially, there was a free flow of people. Palestinian Arabs worked in Israel. Israelis visited the Arab towns to buy and enjoy the services of the local Arabs. Everything was cheaper than in Israel and the interchange was buoyant and good for everyone.
That was until Arafat commanded his troops to engage in what they called “the Second Intifada,” a brutal terror campaign. This was a repeat of an earlier Arafat-inspired killing spree against Israelis civilians that killed and injured many thousands of Israeli Jews.
The Oslo Accords was but a way-station on the road to the total destruction of Israel according to the Palestinian plan of Jewish elimination by stages.
After the slaughter, Palestinians complain when Israel put up barriers to prevent the incursion into Israel of Palestinian suicide bombers, gunmen, and other forms of crude terrorism.
I am witness to the change, the division, between Israelis and Arabs who want to call themselves Palestinian. In the past, we also enjoyed visiting Tulkarm to buy household goods and enjoy their cafes. I even had Palestinian Arabs work on upgrades to my apartment. That was before Tulkarm became a hotbed of competing Palestinian terrorism.
Killers representing the PLO, Tanzim, Hamas, Palestinian Islamic Jihad, even Lebanese Hezbollah have emerged from the hellhole that once was peaceful Arab Tulkarm to kill Israelis, including women and children. I know. I became the co-founder of the Netanya Terror Victims Organization. Over 50 Netanya victims were killed, many more injured, some badly, in my small hometown.
Since Israel constructed a security wall bordering Tulkarm, no Israeli has been blown up by Palestinian suicide bombers.
The Palestinians of Tulkarm, Nablus, Hebron, and Bethlehem can complain about restrictions as much as they want. They have only themselves to blame.
Peace was once an option. They killed it. Deliberately. Let them blame their leaders, not ours.
One deceptive fable Palestinians tell the world is that they are trapped in Bethlehem behind oppressive walls and checkpoints, that it is a prison with no exit, that it is a form of apartheid, ethnic cleansing. Yet, it is a strange sort of ethnic cleansing prison in which the Christian population has fallen dramatically while the Muslim population has increased exponentially! It’s a checkpoint where Christians leave and Muslims enter.
Some ethnic cleansing! Some apartheid!
Christians are not trapped in Bethlehem. Neither are Muslims. They can go through checkpoints after an obligatory security clearance. Israelis, on the other hand, are advised not to enter Bethlehem. Road signs warn Israeli drivers that it is dangerous to travel on certain roads under Palestinian control, and are prevented from doing so in certain sensitive areas.
Contrary to Palestinian claims of Israeli “oppression,” in Bethlehem the major problem still facing the few remaining Christians is the duress posed by Islamic extremists and Palestinian bullies. They are the ones that are driving them out of that town.
The former Archbishop of Canterbury, Rowan Williams, reported a few years back, “I have spent two days with fellow Christian leaders in Bethlehem. There are signs of disturbing anti-Christian feeling among parts of the Muslim population, despite the constant traditions of co-existence. But their plight is made more intolerable by the tragic conditions mads by the security fence.”
Both of these tragedies are the responsibility of the brutal and uncaring oppression of the Palestinian leadership and the emboldened Muslim population who have exploited the Palestinian-inspired turmoil.
In a televised report for Fox News by Pete Hegseth called “The Battle in Bethlehem,” Hegseth found it difficult to find a Christian willing to go on camera to tell him what they told him privately. He had several booked to appear. They all backed out at the last minute, even after he promised to hide their identity.
When Hegseth mentioned this to law professor, Eugene Kontorovich, the professor smilingly told him, “They are not going to tell you they live in danger, because they live in danger.”
Among the Palestinian Christians there are a radical minority that perpetuate an anti-Semitic Kairos doctrine of replacement theology. They help generate a relatively new Palestinian lie – that Jesus is a Palestinian.
Jesus has been hijacked by the Palestinian cause. Obscene conferences are held in Bethlehem including ‘Christ at the Checkpoint’ in which Jesus is presented as a Palestinian messenger.
In my role helping our terror victims I sadly recognize a Palestinian messenger when I see one. They usually come attached to an explosive belt, carrying a rifle or a hatchet. They also have a penchant for sending their messages attached to a rocket or mortar shell. We are still waiting for them to come with a message of peace. These Palestinian messengers are the antithesis of Jesus.
Hegseth went in search of what is going on with Jesus in Bethlehem.
He sat with Adnan, owner of the StarB Coffee shop. “Jesus is a Balestinian.” Most Palestinian Arabs cannot pronounce the letter “P.” “If you study all three books,” referring to the Old and New Testaments and the Koran, “he is a Balestinian.”
When Hegseth protested by saying, “But, for Christians, Jesus in the New Testament is a Jew and he went to the holy temple,” Adnan smiled and said, “He was born here and the Jews tried to kill him.”
Hoping for a more intelligent answer, Hegseth went to speak with Bethlehem University professor, Mazin Qumsiyah. According to the professor, “the word ‘Jew’ and the religion came in the 3rd Century AD, long after Jesus. I am Judaic,” said this Palestinian academic explaining it thus, “The Judaic people came from Judea. This is Judea. Jesus is not from Judea. He came from Nazareth two thousand years ago which was not a religious place.”
Continuing the myth, and contradicting himself in the process, Qumsiyah told Fox News, “If you are asking if Jesus was a Jew from a geographic designation, the answer is no. If you talk from a religion, only in the 3rd century AD does Judaism as a religion come.”
Astonishingly, or maybe not, this is what professors are teaching students in Palestinian universities.
Hegseth took this anecdote to Dr. Naim Khoury from the First Baptist Church of Bethlehem who shook his head.
“That is not true. You cannot find this anywhere in the Bible. How can you deny that Jesus is born from Mary of Nazareth and that her family was known as Jewish people?”
Everyone knows the pastor is right. Everyone except the Palestinians and their obsessed supporters. And maybe UNESCO and the majority of the UN General Assembly.
This then is part of the Palestinian conflict.
Hegseth asked Dr. Khoury why they deny the truth.
“Politics. It’s a very dirty game. When bad people play politics they can say what they want.”
Dr. Khoury is a courageous Christian. According to his bio, he has been shot four times and the Palestinian Authority refuse to grant his church authority to function as a religious institution, but the brave pastor continues to care for his dwindling congregation. His church has been firebombed and defaced, his members attacked, not by Israelis but by Palestinian Muslims.
The pastor’s son, Steven, told the 700 Club, “Christians are leaving because they are seeing that nobody is standing with them. They are seeing that extremism is growing, that an anti-Christian agenda is growing. Their ultimate goal is to put fear and submission into the heart of every Christian in the Middle East.”
First they came for the Saturday people. Then they came for the Sunday people. And shockingly, they are supported by radical elements among the Sunday people and a few of the Saturday people.
In a hundred-year conflict, ever since the anti-Semite Haj Amin al-Husseini set out on an incitement rampage exhorting Muslims to kill Jews. He was followed by Mahmoud Abbas his “Pay to Slay” incentive to kill Jews, Hamas and Palestinian Islamic Jihad.
We cannot build a path to peace, or a future, on the assumption that the Palestinians will stop their lies, their hate campaign, and their obsessive desire to kill Jews, and persecute Christians.
In Bethlehem, they are doing to the Christians what they did to the Jews. They are driving them out.
The lies that Palestinian tell at Christmas is an indication of the root cause of the conflict.
Barry Shaw is the International Public Diplomacy Director at the Israel Institute for Strategic Studies. He is the author of ‘Fighting Hamas, BDS and Antisemitism.’