If you have ever visited Israel, you know the care with which Israelis safeguard the holy sites of all faiths. It has nevertheless become a seasonal pastime for news outlets to run stories bashing Israel for depredations it has allegedly committed on Bethlehem. Dion Nissenbaum and Cliff Churgin’s AP story “Reality in Bethlehem mars Christmas tradition” contains elements of the traditional stocking stuffer, but by far the worst of the season is Kenneth Woodward’s Wall Street Journal column “The plight of Bethlehem.”
By his own account, Woodward has not visited Bethlehem since 2000, the year Yasser Arafat commenced the second intifada. Woodward decries the diminishing native population of Arab Christians. Unlike Nissenbaum and Churgin, however, he omits to mention the persecution by Palestinian Muslims that has thinned their ranks. Woodward takes the occasion only to bash Israel:
Israel, of course, must protect its security. But it cannot blame the Christians’ dire circumstances on the second intifada: Muslims are suffering just as much as the tiny Christian minority. Indeed, Bethlehem has historically been one place where Muslim-Christian relations have been remarkably friendly. Now, however, urban Bethlehem finds itself encircled by Israeli settlements, and where the settlers go, there follows the concrete wall, topped in places by razor wire and snipers’ towers.
For example, the wall is being completed around Beit Jala, separating this Christian village from 70% of its lands, which are mostly owned by Christian families. Some of the families are attempting to contest the confiscations in court, but construction–and the confiscation–goes on.
In Bethlehem itself, the wall severs the city from nearly three-fourths of its western villages’ remaining agricultural lands, as well as water resources that have served the region since Roman times. This area contains much of Bethlehem’s remaining room for development and its nature reserve, where city dwellers took their children.
Forget Woodward’s non sequitur about the second intifada and suffering Muslims, and focus on the dreaded wall and relevant political developments Woodward somehow overlooks. As Aaron Klein writes:
Israel in 2002 built a fence in the area where northern Bethlehem interfaces with Jerusalem. A tiny segment of that barrier, facing a major Israeli roadway, is a concrete wall, which Israel says is meant to prevent gunmen from shooting at Israeli motorists.
The fence was constructed after the outbreak of the Palestinian Intifada, or terror war, launched in 2000 after late PLO Leader Yasser Arafat turned down an Israeli offer of a Palestinian state, returning to the Middle East to liberate Palestine with violence.
Scores of deadly suicide bombings and shooting attacks against Israelis were planned in Bethlehem and carried out by Bethlehem-area terrorists.
At one point during the period of just 30 days in 2002, at least 14 shootings were perpet[r]ated by Bethlehem cells of al-Aqsa Martyrs Brigades terrorists, killing two Israelis and wounding six.
Many times Muslim gunmen in the Bethlehem area reportedly took positions in civilian homes in the hilltops of Christian Beit Jala, which straddles Bethlehem. Beit Jala afforded the terrorists a clear firing line at southern sections of Jerusalem and at a major Israeli highway down below, drawing Israeli military raids and the eventual building of the security barrier there.
Is this barrier causing Bethlehem’s Christians to flee, as the mainstream media claim?
Simple demographic facts will answer this question. Israel built the barrier five years ago. But Bethlehem’s Christian population started to drastically decline in 1995, the very year Arafat’s Palestinian Authority took over the holy Christian city in line with the US-backed Oslo Accords.
Bethlehem consisted of upwards of 80 percent Christians when Israel was founded in 1948, but since Arafat got his grimy hands on it, the city’s Christian population dove to its current 23-percent. And that statistic is considered generous since it includes the satellite towns of Beit Sahour and Beit Jala. Some estimates place Bethlehem’s actual Christian population at as low as 12 percent, with hundreds of Christians emigrating per year.
As soon as he took over Bethlehem, Arafat unilaterally fired the city