September 16, 2019

Another silent Christmas in Bethlehem

On Christmas Eve 1984, Bethlehem’s Manger Square was crisscrossed with Christmas lights and a banner welcoming the choir of Brewton-Parker College. That Dublin, Ga., institution gave its annual open-air concert before thousands of Christian pilgrims packed in front of the Church of the Nativity. The major problem the Israeli Army faced that night was one distraught American tourist who could not locate her car in the vehicle-clogged streets of Bethlehem.

Christmas of 2000 was another banner year for Bethlehem tourism. Upward of 50,000 pilgrims thronged the little town on each day of the Roman Catholic Christmas as well as on the Greek and Armenian Orthodox Christmases several weeks later.

Christmas of 2001 became a casualty of Israeli-Palestinian violence. The major issue faced by Bethlehem authorities and the government of Israel that year was whether Palestinian Authority President Yasser Arafat, a Muslim, would be allowed to transit across Israel from his compound in Ramallah in order to be present at the Church of the Nativity in Bethlehem on Christmas Eve. Israel feared that Arafat might turn Christmas festivities to his political advantage and Israel’s detriment. The issue of whether Arafat would be naughty or nice was resolved in an imaginative, high-tech way: He delivered a message via video-teleconferencing to onlookers in Bethlehem.

Christmas Eve of 2003 in Bethlehem was another casualty of ongoing violence and can only be described as a “silent night.” The day began when a sparse crowd of about 1,500 watched the bagpipers, drummers and baton twirlers of Bethlehem’s Terra Sancta School parade through Manger Square. Among the onlookers were about 1,200 foreign pilgrims in town for the day plus Latin Patriarch Michel Sabbah, titular head of Bethlehem’s Roman Catholics, a small fraction within Bethlehem’s dwindling Christian minority. Most of the 21 hotels in the area are empty. According to the HAARETZ newspaper, The Bethlehem Hotel, accommodating mainly journalists and Palestinian Authority officials, reached 50 percent capacity on Dec. 24, something of a Christmas miracle.

The Authority itself, which normally provides the town of Bethlehem with $100,000 for Christmas decorations, pleaded poverty and refused the town its normal allocation. Locals scraped together $10,000 on their own. Many of the bulbs strung across bushes had long since burned out. Jerusalem’s orthodox Jewish mayor tried to lighten spirits a bit by arranging for the free distribution of Christmas trees at Jaffa Gate.

While “peace on earth,” not to mention Christmas cheer, seem to have eluded Bethlehem this Christmas Eve, one should bear in mind broader contours of events in the Middle East. Despite ongoing Israeli-Palestinian violence, there remain signs that peace in the Middle East may yet be in the cards.

Israel and overwhelmingly Muslim Turkey have enjoyed full diplomatic relations since 1949. Military and economic ties have flourished between the two countries, especially in the last few years. More than 300,000 Israeli tourists visited the Turkish resort of Antalya in 2003.

Israel and Syria enjoy a frontier which has been casualty-free since l973. Indeed, the Henry Kissinger-brokered Israeli-Syrian Disengagement Agreement of l974 may have set an all-time record for peace between two former Middle Eastern adversaries. It certainly has outlasted numerous peace agreements between Arab states.

Israel and Jordan signed a peace treaty nine years ago and have quietly settled a long-simmering frontier dispute over an area informally renamed “Peace Island.” El Al Israel Air Lines services the Jordanian capital of Amman. Jordanian airliners, unlike those of any other Arab country, have access to Israeli air space. Negotiations are under way to regularly export Israeli Dead Sea minerals to East Asia via the Jordanian port of Aqaba and Jordanian products to Europe via Israel’s Mediterranean ports, thereby freeing Israel’s port of Elat for the expansion of hotels for tourists.

Israel has enjoyed only a cold peace with Egypt since President Anwar Sadat’s courageous visit to Jerusalem 27 years ago. Nevertheless, the current Israeli-Egyptian relationship is infinitely superior to the incessant warfare that characterized the 30 years prior to Sadat’s visit. An example of that cold but peaceful relationship is the reversion of the Taba beach resort to Egyptian sovereignty after decades of agonizing negotiation culminating in a case before the International Court of Justice in the Hague.

And what of the Palestinians? The first state to recognize Palestinian independence was Israel. It did so at the moment of its birth 55 years ago only to have the viability of such a solution shattered by Arab states which attacked a fledgling Israel and confiscated the territories the United Nations had set aside for the Palestinians, namely the West Bank and Gaza Strip. Since the Madrid Peace Conference of 1991 Israel has granted infinitely more autonomy to the Palestinians of the West Bank and Gaza Strip than they ever enjoyed under Jordan or Egypt, which held those territories from 1948 to l967.

Israel is now secure on its Jordanian, Egyptian and even Syrian frontiers due to long-term negotiation and deterrent strength. Unresolved problems remain with the Palestinians and especially with Lebanon, where Iran has provided the terrorist group Hezbollah with approximately 10,000 missiles, all aimed at Israeli farms and villages in the upper Gailiee. Hopefully, arrangements similar to those which Israel has reached with Jordan, Egypt and Syria, and optimally along the lines of those that exist with Turkey, can be achieved with the Palestinian Authority and with Lebanon. The alternative is continued Israeli-Palestinian and Israeli-Lebanese violence, more silent nights in Bethlehem, and the possibility of another regional war which no sane Middle Easterner desires and which the world can ill afford.

Dr. Jonathan Goldstein, a professor of history at the State University of West Georgia and summer resident of Glenburn, is author of the books “China and Israel, 1948-98” [1999], and “The Jews of China” [2000].

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