Rory McCarthy
The Guardian
December 23, 2009 - 1:00am

The shelves of Bethlehem's tourist shops this winter are filled with the gifts you might expect. There are countless carved olive-wood crucifixes, angels and last suppers. But there are also unexpected nativity scenes complete with Joseph, Mary, crib, wise men and large Israeli concrete wall with military watchtower.

Israel's vast separation barrier is at its most prominent around Bethlehem. Here it is a tall concrete wall that crosses into the occupied West Bank, runs up tight against the Palestinian city and cuts it off from much of its farmland. For Palestinians it has become one of the most striking symbols of Israel's 42-year military occupation.

In some of these modern interpretations of the nativity the wall cuts through the centre of the scene, dividing wise men and camels from the crib. At the Holy Land Arts Museum, on Bethlehem's Manager Square, the Giacaman family sells a different version, carved carefully to scale with three slices of wall and a looming watchtower. These pieces are not cheap: the full-size version, made from olive wood and with a thick Cyprus-wood watchtower nearly 50cm tall, sells for hundreds of pounds. They are made only to order.

"It's important that people see what is really happening here," said Elias Giacaman, 27. "We could have said the scale doesn't matter, but I wanted it to be actually accurate to show the real image of the wall."

The idea was suggested by an aid worker and Giacaman says most of the customers for the larger pieces are foreigners – journalists, aid workers and diplomats – based in Jerusalem or tourists ordering from abroad.

Giacaman's family, like many in and around Bethlehem, have lost agricultural land that is now on the other side of the barrier, where the rapidly expanding Israeli settlement of Har Homa sits. "We can't even get close to it," he said.

Only slightly more than half the barrier's 450-mile length has been completed, but Israel insists it has played a crucial role in preventing Palestinian bombing attacks inside Israel. It effectively attaches up to 10% of the West Bank to Israel and increasingly looks like the outline of a future political border. The international court of justice has ruled the barrier is illegal where it crosses into the West Bank and should be taken down.

There are other challenges. Although thousands of West Bank Christians will be given month-long Israeli permits to visit Jerusalem's churches this Christmas, only 300 of Gaza's 3,000 Christians will be allowed in.

The Christian Palestinian community has become ever more vocal in its criticism of the occupation. Several prominent clergy issued a new call this month for civil disobedience and peaceful resistance as "a right and a duty", likening their effort to a summons by South African churches at the height of the apartheid regime. They criticised the use of "fundamentalist biblical interpretation" to support unjust political positions.

"Our connectedness to this land is a natural right. It is not an ideological or a theological question only. It is a matter of life and death," they wrote in the Kairos Palestine document [pdf].

"The decision-makers content themselves with managing the crisis rather than committing themselves to the serious task of finding a way to resolve it." Among the signatories were the former Latin patriarch, Michel Sabbah, the Lutheran bishop of Jerusalem, Munib Younan, and the Greek Orthodox archbishop, Theodosios Atallah Hanna.

The Palestinian economy on the West Bank has improved slightly this year, in part because Israel has lifted some of its more than 500 checkpoints, roadblocks and other obstacles. But Bethlehem shopkeepers say the broader international economic crisis has kept away the foreign tourists who are their main customers. The wood carvers generally buy pruned branches of olive wood from farmers across the West Bank, but Giacaman said there was so little demand this year the wood was down to a third of its usual price.

Israel says it expects around 70,000 foreign tourists to visit this Christmas.


American Task Force on Palestine - 1634 Eye St. NW, Suite 725, Washington DC 20006 - Telephone: 202-262-0017