Dr. Bernard Sabella
Arabic Media Internet Network
December 20, 2007 - 4:59pm

This is the time of feasts and holidays. We are on our second day of Eid El Adha, the Muslim Feast of Sacrifice; Hanukkah, the Feast of Lights, was celebrated few days ago.   Christmas is around the corner. As we celebrate our separate holidays, it is clear that we have not yet found the middle ground that would enable all of us to genuinely share the celebrations of each other. There are many theories, academic arguments and practical reasons of why we have not yet arrived at the middle ground. Some would lay the blame on this side or that and yet others would put the blame on all sides and show their inability to make acceptable political compromises. Yet, there are groups on both sides that continue to insist that it is not possible to arrive at peace, let middle ground, with the other side. Some would want to argue that on this Christmas time and in reference specifically to Bethlehem that politics should be out and only the best in the religious traditions as reflected particularly in tourists and pilgrims arriving to Bethlehem should be highlighted. Turning a blind eye to politics is sure to bring people together, according to this argument. This is a surrealistic a position as imagining that there is no concrete wall surrounding Bethlehem, the town of nativity.

That the current state of relations between our two peoples is separation is best illustrated with the concrete separation wall surrounding Bethlehem and its environs. The separation wall is a reminder that the twinning relationship that existed historically between Bethlehem and Jerusalem is nowadays blocked. Aesthetically, though, the separation wall destroys the simple image of Bethlehem as a small town with care-free shepherds wandering over hills with their flocks. This is an image that millions of children worldwide have grown up with. Anyone visiting Bethlehem today would know that this is not so and that the harsh reality of concrete separation renders Bethlehem and its people unable to exercise even basic rights of travel back and forth to Jerusalem let aside needed economic and other pursuits.

An Israeli who heard me speak one time about the separation wall reminisced about the good times when we all used to travel freely throughout the Palestinian Territories and Israel. He argued that the separation wall was a security necessity because of suicide bombers and others who seek to use violence against Israel. The argument has been made so many times but in the end it is the absence of willingness to make the needed concessions for peace that makes separation walls a necessity. The necessity lies in peace making and not in separation walls. The responsibility to move forward towards peace lies squarely on both Israeli and Palestinian sides. There is no excuse trying to derail any moves towards peace by insisting that it is the other side’s responsibility to show its willingness and readiness to stop the use of the military and violence, respectively. We are symbiotically tied to each other and while Christmas and Bethlehem stand out only around the last week of December, the message of Bethlehem is one calling for people to be together and for the good will to overcome the particular interests and narrow interpretations and interests of political positions.

As Christmas approaches, the Israeli Ministry of Defence in charge of access to Bethlehem through the gates of the separation wall together with the Israeli Ministry of Tourism would want to give the foreign tourist and pilgrim visiting Bethlehem the feeling that all is well. Aside from the Peace Signs that greet the visitor ironically at the checkpoints and gates of the separation wall, symbolic gifts are also given to tourists to pass them on to the children of Bethlehem. Special permits, like in Muslim holidays, are given to hundreds of Bethlehem’s Christians to move back and forth freely to Jerusalem. Likewise, hundreds of Arab Israelis and Palestinians from East Jerusalem have relatively open access to visit the holy sites in the town of nativity. Yet, what appears to be magnanimous on the part of Israeli officials during the Christmas season points precisely to the problem that is caused by separation.

An American friend of mine once proposed to some Israeli officials that the permit system that allows Palestinians over a certain age to move freely during the Christian and Muslim holidays should be extended year round. When the Israeli officials told him of the security aspect that prevents them from doing this, his response was if the permit system worked during Christmas, Easter and Ramadan why wouldn’t it work year-round? My wise American friend challenged the Israeli official to make a test by allowing for three months Palestinians
over 45 years of age to move freely in and out of Bethlehem and other Palestinian towns and villages. If the three months prove successful then those above the age 40 would be next to be given free access, and so on. That the Israeli politics of security determines every little thing in the Palestinian Territories does affect Bethlehem as it affects other Palestinian towns and communities. 

At this Christmas time, it is important to think seriously about moving away from cosmetic steps aimed at beautifying separation particularly between Jerusalem and Bethlehem. Instead, we should all think how to open up Bethlehem and to open up all Palestinian towns, villages and localities to each other. We are not asking for free access to Israel; we are seeking to be able to move freely within the Palestinian Territories. If you would argue that this is not possible till peace arrives, then the question is what are you doing to advance prospects of peace? And how would you convince average Palestinians that you are serious about peace negotiations?

Separation is not the answer, Christmassy and holiday greetings and symbolic gestures are not the answer either. The answer lies in creating a middle ground that would advance the prospects for peace and that would make the twinning of Bethlehem and Jerusalem a reality once again. This middle ground will not be created if there is no willingness on your part to end the military occupation of Palestinian lands. Permit systems, given around Christmas and Easter time and the Muslim holidays, are a reflection of continuing occupation bolstered by the system of separation and hence, in their very nature, point to the abuse of basic human rights that is ongoing and that cannot beautify military occupation. 

On our part we need to send you a clear message that we have opted for peaceful means to challenge continuing occupation. Violence, in whatever form and method, will only produce a vicious cycle in which nobody could win. Christmas time is a time for a message of peace and good will. It is a time to remind each and everyone of us that the great holiday traditions in Judaism, Christianity and Islam can and should be shared and appreciated by all. When the time comes that Bethlehem and Jerusalem are open to each other and when Palestinians and Israelis can move freely throughout the Land, then we would all know that we have done what is needed in order to reconcile our historic political differences and to move onward towards touching base with the human in each other.


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