There’s room at the Inn: More evidence Catherine Philp misled on Bethlehem

In our post on Dec. 25, we commented on a tendentious and highly misleading story published by Catherine Philp at The Times (Settlements choke peace in little town of Bethlehem) which argued that Israeli settlement policy was choking religious and economic life in the “fabled biblical town” and causing Christians to flee.  

Specifically, we demonstrated that Philp made two significant errors:

  • She falsely claimed that Israeli settlements “encircle” Bethlehem.
  • She falsely claimed that Bethlehem is more densely populated than Gaza (a claim later corrected following our communication with Times editors).

Additionally, Philps’ piece was extremely misleading, as it completely ignored the primary reason for the Christian exodus from the town – the threat of violence and intimidation from Islamist extremists, mirroring the root cause of the flight of Christians from the Middle East more broadly. But, there was another implicit narrative advanced by Philps - and other journalists who have engaged in the annual Bethlehem-centered Israel bashing tradition: that tourism (and economic life in general) has been negatively affected by Israeli settlements and the security fence.

Interestingly, a report in the Jan. 3rd Jerusalem Post (print edition) by Omri Gaster, citing stats compiled by the Jerusalem Institute for Israel Studies (JIIS) – based on numbers from the Palestinian Central Bureau of Statistics (PCBS) – further contradict Philps’ story.  According to the report, Bethlehem has become a tourist destination which in some ways “rival[s] the city of Jerusalem”.

(Note about the graph below: Though the PCBS includes both Hebron and Bethlehem in Palestine’s “Southern District”, the overwhelming majority of the tourist trade is concentrated in Bethlehem. So, the data illustrated below refers primarily to overnight hotel stays in Bethlehem.)


As the author notes, in 2009 there were 287,000 hotel stays recorded in Bethlehem, while in 2012 the figure reached 550,000 – a 92 percent increase over the course of only four years.  According to the JIIS, the primary factor behind this increase was a greater number of European tourists staying overnight in the city.

Musicians perform on stage in Manger Square, outside the Church of the Nativity, the site revered as the birthplace of Jesus, Bethlehem, Dec. 1, 2013.

Musicians perform on stage in Manger Square, outside the Church of the Nativity, Bethlehem, Dec. 1, 2013.

Moreover, such increasing hotel stays reflect broader economic trends, such as the fact that the overall number of visitors to Bethlehem has been increasing steadily over the years - a number which now approaches 2 million visitors annually.  

Over the last two years, we’ve fisked stories about Bethlehem published at the Guardian – by Harriet Sherwood and Phoebe Greenwood - advancing misleading narratives about the alleged Israeli economic strangulation of the Christian holy city similar to Philps’ story in the Times, and again we come to the same conclusion:  There seems to be little if any actual empirical data to indicate that the presence of settlements (or the security fence) is having an injurious economic impact on Bethlehem.

Related articles

Christmas priorities at St James’s Church: Israel security wall stunt cost £30,000!

Cross posted by London-based blogger Richard Millett

Take a look at the above photo. That is what £30,000 looks like. That is the cost of St James’s Church’s replica of Israel’s security wall according to St James’s churchwarden Jo Hines.

Hines said the money was all privately raised, presumably from the likes of vicious anti-Israel charity War On Want, Amos Trust, Holy Land Trust, Interpal, Jews For Justice For Palestinians, Israeli Committee Against House Demolitions, P21 Gallery, Tipping Point North South, Zaytoun CIC all of whom are “associated with” Bethlehem Unwrapped.

Last night it was the turn of Jewish comedians Ivor Dembina, Dave Cohen and Andy Zaltzman to go on stage for Bethlehem Unwrapped, which is pretty ironic seeing as one of their audience members was Jane Green, probably a pseudonym, who is a notorious Holocaust mocker. As she went in to the church last night I asked her what she thought of the Holocaust to which she replied “What Holocaust”.

Then, of course, there is this clip of a discussion outside St James’s Church where a supporter of Israel is called “a frigging Jew” (see from 4 mins. 15 secs.).

All pretty disturbing stuff especially in the week of Nicolas Anelka’s alleged reverse Nazi salute.

When I put it to Hines that the £30,000 could have been better spent feeding the homeless and heating the elderly she responded that that argument could also be made in relation to statues and that there are 20 or so homeless people sleeping in St James’s Church at night.

Imagine had St James’s Church’s courtyard, where the replica wall stands, been made into a structure for the 12 days where even more people could sleep, be fed and be kept warm. Churches, I thought, were in the business of looking after the poor and caring for the elderly.

After the 12 days of Christmas are over the replica wall is due to be taken down. That amounts to a cost of £2,500 a day. At least a statue usually stays up for the long-term so over time its daily cost is minimal.

So what is St James’s Church’s replica wall going to achieve? St James’s Church states “All net proceeds to the ‘Future Peacemakers Appeal’, Holy Land Trust, Bethlehem.” I’d be amazed if there are any “net proceeds” when you take into account the £30,000 cost of the replica wall. Admittedly, chef Yotam Ottolenghi’s friday night £125/head “Bethlehem Feast” could make inroads into the £30,000.

For British Jews the replica wall and Bethlehem Unwrapped are a disaster. I agree with Melanie Phillips when she states that its inevitable effect will be “to incite hatred against Israel and all who support its defence”, which means even more vigilance at synagogues, Jewish schools and Jewish events.

Some will benefit though. Ottolenghi and his chef partner Sami Tamimi and Dembina, Zaltzman and Cohen will have had their faces and names plastered all over the gates of the Church which looks out onto one of the busiest roads in London. Not forgetting Justin Butcher, Geof Thompson, Dean Willars and Deborah Burton who all helped to design the replica wall (see below).

In the end the £30,000 cost of the wall could have been donated to help those that St James’s Church, Piccadilly, really claims to care for: the people of Bethlehem.

Unwrapped: An ugly Guardian smear

Between late December and early January St James’s Church, Piccadilly is hosting “Bethlehem Unwrapped”, a Christmas festival – produced in association with several radical NGOs - presenting a series of events and activities on the lives of Palestinians “living behind the wall”.  “Bethlehem Unwrapped” includes an especially duplicitous anti-Israel propaganda stunt: the erection of an 8 meter-tall “replica” of the Israeli “wall” that it claims (erroneously) “surrounds Bethlehem” and imposes hardships on the town’s inhabitants. 

It is duplicitous, as Denis MacEoin argued recently in his open letter to St. James Church, because it doesn’t mention the dozens of security fences that have been built by other countries (such as India’s barrier in Kashmir and the “Peace Lines” in Northern Ireland), nor the fact that the barrier – built in response to waves of deadly Palestinian suicide bomb attacks – has saved countless lives.  It is also a moral failure as a Christmas message because it ignores the real problems faced by Christians in the Palestinian territories – the intolerance and violence of Islamist extremists who seek a Palestine free of Christians and, of course, Jews.

Though much has been written about Israel’s security fence and the mock wall currently on display in London, attempts to impute Israeli racism, segregation or even “apartheid” to such a non-lethal response to murderous attacks against its citizens is standard fare within radical anti-Israel circles - all of which brings us to the following photo published on page 8 of the Dec. 30 print edition of the Guardian, under the heading, ‘A taste of segregation‘:

wall 2

Guardian print edition, pg 8: Dec. 30

Of course, suggesting that Israel engages in codified segregation by erecting such a fence fails the most obvious tests of logic and common sense, as Palestinian Arabs who live in the West Bank are NOT citizens of Israel and therefore can’t possibly be expected to enjoy the same rights and privileges. Suggesting that Israel’s barrier represents “segregation” (a word which typically refers to separation or isolation based on race) is as absurd as claiming that United States is practicing ‘segregation’ on their southern border because Mexican citizens aren’t allowed to automatically cross the ‘fenced’ border into America.

In short, there is no racial component to Israeli checkpoints and security fences.

Finally, it is interesting to note that when you look closely at the Guardian’s photo it is cut off around the lower left where two Brits (Sharon and Lesley Klaff) spray painted in red the words “THIS WALL SAVES LIVES”.


If the Guardian had decided to highlight this obscured message perhaps some of their readers less susceptible to their agitprop would have gleaned the most obvious moral lesson: Though the barrier can reasonably be criticized because it creates ‘hardships’ for Palestinians, the reality is that such hardships are reversible. The deaths of Israeli men, women and children – at the hands of homicidal extremists – are not.

‘Tis the season for anti-Israel propaganda at St James’s Church, Piccadilly.

Cross posted by London based blogger Richard Millett

St James’s Church, Piccadilly, in London’s West End has installed a life size 8 metre tall/30 metre long replica of Israel’s security wall in its courtyard as part of its Bethlehem Unwrapped festival. The replica wall is so vast that it obscures the Church itself.

The life size replica wall at St James’s Church, Piccadilly for Bethlehem Unwrapped

The life size replica wall at St James’s Church, Piccadilly for Bethlehem Unwrapped

The replica wall will be lit up at night and for the next twelve days of Christmas (until 5th January) a montage of images and slogans will be continuously projected onto it. Scenes include parts of London with a wall passing through it.

What you won’t see projected onto the replica wall are scenes of bombed out Israeli buses, hotels, pizza restaurants, bars and nightclubs that were ubiquitous in Israel before the wall.

Bethlehem Unwrapped has evening events with anti-Israel polemicists including comedians Jeremy Hardy and Ivor Dembina, musician Nigel Kennedy, columnists Yasmin Alibhai-Brown and Mark Steel, Jeff Halper of Israeli Committee Against House Demolitions and War On Want’s in-house poet Rafeef Ziadah.

Maybe Ivor Dembina will reprise his notorious Holocaust “joke” in which he mocks the Jewish people for wanting to hog the Auschwitz limelight. According to Dembina Jews don’t really want others to know that gays, gypsies and the disabled were also murdered at Auschwitz because we like to see it as “Ourschwitz, not Yourschwitz”.

Had someone made a joke about, for example, Srebrenica they would rightly be excluded but Dembina, host of the Hampstead Comedy Club, is one of the star turns at Bethlehem Unwrapped.

Or maybe poet Rafeef Ziadah will reprise her praising of Islamic Jihad chief Khader Adnan. Adnan, you may recall, is keen to incite Palestinians to become suicide bombers and blow up innocent Israeli children.

Unbelievably, into this political hatefest have stepped the supposedly “non-political” chefs Yotam Ottolenghi and Sami Tamimi. They will be hosting the “Bethlehem Feast” at the church on Friday January 3rd.

Last night’s unveiling of the replica wall was introduced by St James’s Church Rector Lucy Winkett.

Rector Winkett said the reason behind the replica wall was that when 20 of them visited Israel and the Palestinian territories in October “one of the lasting memories of our time there was this wall” (see clip).

It is a shame Rector Winkett didn’t also visit the graves of Israeli children murdered by Palestinian suicide bombers or Israelis left disabled by them.

The microphone was then handed to Jeff Halper of Israeli Committee Against House Demolitions who left those who made it to the church despite the dreadful weather conditions in no doubt as to what the next twelves days of Bethlehem Unwrapped had in store. Halper has previously expressed his wish to boycott Israel out of existence.

Last night Halper described Israel’s security wall as a “very deadly barrier that people cannot pass” and said “this wall is not built for security…it doesn’t protect Israelis in any way”. He continued “the wall defines the borders of the Israeli bantustan that is being created for Palestinians in an apartheid state…it defines those cantons in which Palestinians will be confined” (see clip below).

I understand that there are due to be a couple of last-minute voices putting Israel’s case at the panel debate with Halper “Both sides of the Barrier: Separation or Security?” on January 4th but it is a drop in the ocean when compared to what is taking place over the entirety of the festival.

During the festival members of the public are being invited write on the wall. The address of St James’s Church is 197 Piccadilly. It’s very close to Piccadilly Circus tube station. Feel free to head away from the sales for a few minutes to balance out the hate and the lies. But take a good pen with you.

This replica wall has possibly cost thousands of pounds. There have been designers, architects, curators, materials, scaffolding and a team of builders. With mouths to feed and people freezing to death in this country alone it is shameful that St James’s Church, Piccadilly, has squandered so much on what is nothing more than an anti-Israel propaganda exercise.

Other Photos from last night:

St James's Rector Julie Winkett and replica wall curator Justin Butcher singing "oh Little Town of Bethlehem" last night.

St James’s Rector Lucy Winkett and replica wall curator Justin Butcher singing “oh Little Town of Bethlehem” last night.

Justin Butcher with the replica wall's architect and its designer last night.

Justin Butcher with the replica wall’s architect and its designer last night.

Some of the projections on to replica wall until January 5th 2014:







The award for ‘UK paper blaming Israel for ruining Christmas in Bethlehem’ goes to….

Surprisingly, this year the award does NOT go to the Guardian.

timesIt goes to The Times for a story by Catherine Philp which is riddled with errors and distortions. (See our previous posts on Philp here and here.) 

Israeli settlements surround Bethlehem?


From a barren hill, the settlers look down on snowy Bethlehem. “Just look at all this nature,” rhapsodises Yehuda Nesha as he turns from the fabled biblical town towards the Judean hills. Should the settlers get their way, though, nature will soon be banished from this hill, replaced by the red roofs and golden stone walls of hundreds of new homes, the latest links in a chain of Jewish settlements encircling the Palestinian town of Bethlehem.

However, as this map by B’tselem demonstrates, Israeli settlements do NOT encircle Bethlehem.



Bethlehem has become more densely populated than Gaza?


With little space left to expand, Bethlehem has become more densely populated than Gaza, despite the steady exodus of wealthier residents, mostly Christians, anxious to escape what the Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas called “a choking reality”.

Interestingly, this exact claim was also advanced in a story by Harriet Sherwood last year, citing an unnamed Palestinian official.  But, as we demonstrated at the time, this too is false. According to the PA’s own statistics, the population density of the city of Bethlehem is 4,757 persons/km², which is LOWER than Gaza’s, which (per the CIA Fact World Book) is at 4,898 persons/km².

Who’s to blame for the Christian Exodus from Bethlehem?


Down in Beit Sahour, which is mostly Christian, residents of one housing development have been living under the threat of demolition for more than a decade since an Israeli court ruled its building illegal. The order was frozen but never lifted, leaving families in limbo, wondering if or when the bulldozers will arrive and where they will go if they do. “This is the only place left for us,” says William Sahouri, whose family has lived in the area for more than 300 years. “There are no lands to expand.”

He is one of seven brothers, but only three remain in Bethlehem. The other four have gone abroad, part of a migration that has seen Bethlehem’s Christian population fall from about 50 per cent to under a third.

In this year’s Christmas message, Mr Abbas highlighted the Christian exodus, lamenting “the sad fact that more Bethlehemites will be lighting their candles in Santiago de Chile, Chicago, San Pedro de Sula, Melbourne and Toronto than those in Bethlehem”.

Beyond her implication that Israel is to blame, Philp fails to seriously explain why the Christian population in the city has fallen.

In addition to demographic dynamics, such as higher Muslim birthrates, there is the widespread problem of Palestinian Christians being targeted for violence at the hands of Muslim extremists.  As reported in a detailed CAMERA analysis last year, Pastor Nihad Salman (who serves in Beit Jala, a Palestinian Christian town opposite Bethlehem) has testified extensively about Muslim hostility toward Christians.  Additionally, Dexter Van Zile, CAMERA’s Christian Media Analyst, interviewed Steven Khoury, assistant pastor at The First Baptist Church in Bethlehem, in a piece that was published in The Algemeiner. Khoury told Van Zile that anti-Christian animus has gotten worse in Bethlehem over the years, and that there is serious pressure placed on Christians in the West Bank to convert to Islam. 

Telegraph story in 2011 reported that Church leaders in the Holy Land had compiled a “dossier” of alleged incidents of abuse by ‘Islamic fundamentalists against Palestinian Christians, and accused the Palestinian Authority of doing nothing to stop the attacks.  According to the Telegraph, “the dossier includes a list of 140 cases of apparent land theft, in which Christians in the West Bank were allegedly forced off their lands, backed by corrupt [Palestinian] judicial officials.”

Remarkably, in 880 words written by the Times reporter about the fate of Christians in Bethlehem, there isn’t a single word about the problem of Islamist extremism. Nor does she note that the only country in the region where the Christian population is increasing is Israel.

Indeed, the fact that the only nation in the Middle East where Christians are flourishing just happens to be the sole place where radical Islam is not a serious threat is essential to understanding the fate of Christianity in that part of the world – vital context about contrasting values of tolerance in the region which Catherine Philp fails to provide.  

The Palestinian Marathon and Phoebe Greenwood’s selective credulity.

The Guardian published a story on April 21 by Phoebe Greenwood entitled ‘First Bethlehem marathon staged in howling wind and rain‘, which focused on the putative challenges faced by Palestinians in organizing their first-ever full marathon.

Greenwood’s report includes the following passages:

A Palestinian city encircled by Israeli settlements, bypass roads connecting the settlements and checkpoints, Bethlehem cannot offer an uninterrupted 42.2km full marathon course. The 26 competitors who ran the full race were required to make two circuits of the city along a course that passed through two refugee camps, alongside the Israeli separation wall, turned back on itself at a checkpoint and finished back at the Church of the Nativity.

In any other country, a marathon runs from point A to point B. In the West Bank, we have to run from point A to point A.  It’s around 40km from Bethlehem to Hebron but runners would have to cross the Israeli settler roads, and that could never happen,” said Xavier Abu Eid, a Palestinian government spokesperson and native Bethlehemite.

Xavier Abu Eid is, according to his short bio at ‘This Week in Palestine’, a “Palestinian-Chilean student of political science and Vice President of the General Union of Palestine Students in Chile”.  He’s also a marathon participant.

Xavier to the left

Xavier Abu Eid is seen on the left

Greenwood naturally lets Abu Eid’s claim about the ‘atypically circuitous route’ of the marathon go unchallenged.

However, a quick glance at the Palestinian Marathon route in contrast with Israel’s annual Jerusalem Marathon undermines Abu Eid’s suggestion.

First, here’s the Palestinian marathon map, according to their own website:


As you can see, the route begins near the Church of the Nativity in Bethlehem, then travels north before heading southwest towards Al Khader – where runners then turn around and run back towards the Bethlehem starting line.  Participants who did the half marathon ran one (roughly 21 km) Bethlehem-to-Al Khader loop, while those running the full marathon (42.2 k) ran two such loops.  

Now, here’s a map illustrating the route of the Jerusalem marathon:


As you can see (by following the race which begins by the black arrow), the 42K run begins by circling Givat Ram before, in a far less than direct route, heading towards Hebrew University’s Mt. Scopus Campus, where the runner doubles back (along some of the same route) to the finish line, which is positioned roughly 500 meters across from the original starting line.

(See black arrow indicating the start of the race, as well as numbers showing the path.)  

Additionally, the Tel Aviv Marathon doesn’t employ a direct route from “point A to point B” – but similarly requires that runners turn back at a certain point, and run a second time along part of the same route to reach the finish line.

Of course, it was just one throwaway line by the Palestinian spokesperson – but its significance transcends the minutiae of the specific claim.

In late 2011 we posted about a Tweet by Greenwood indicating her skepticism over a comment by then Israeli Vice Prime Minister (now Defense Minister) Moshe Ya’alon about incitement, racism and the glorification of terrorism in Palestinian school textbooks.  As we noted at the time, evidence regarding such hate education by the Palestinian Authority is extremely well-documented by sites such as Palestinian Media Watch, and its difficult to understand how a professional reporter could seriously question the veracity of such reports.

For those who carefully follow the coverage of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, it’s very difficult not to observe the credulity of reporters at the Guardian and elsewhere in the face of even the most flippant and often unserious Palestinian statements, in contrast with their extreme skepticism when they cite even the most intuitive and empirically based Israeli claims.

US Guardian and the UK Guardian – 2 blogs separated by a ‘unit-ary’ language

A guest post by AKUS

Do you notice slight differences in the header concerning Israel between the US version and the UK version below (see arrow)?


Yes – the US version suggests that Israel will build one thousand two hundred new settlements (on the West Bank).

A more rational editor in the UK, apparently realizing that even the Netanyahu’s government would be hard put to cram 1,200 new settlements into the West Bank, chose instead to use an almost equally misleading term of “settlement units” (aka – “apartments”).

In the body of the articles, the text is the same – initially referring to “settlement units” and then the more accurate term, “apartments”:

aptsThe error in the US header and the ambiguity in the text of the article indicate Guardian group-think about Israel’s so-called “settlement building” – a narrative which ignores the fact that there has not been a new settlement of any significance in the last four  years, other than a couple of swiftly removed caravan or tent efforts.

The idea of 1,200 new settlements (that is, 1200 entirely new communities/towns across the green line) seems quite feasible to such writers and editors, indicating also that they don’t know too much about the size or geography of the West bank.  Thus, their decision to characterize any home built for Israelis in the West Bank not as “apartments” but, rather, by using a new term in alignment with their broader view – a “settlement unit”.

Also, note the subtle difference in the description of the same issue by Harriet Sherwood in her Christmas Day article ‘Bethlehem celebrates first Christmas since UN recognition of Palestine (in which she manages, by the way,  to totally overlook the large presence of Palestinian Authority police in Bethlehem, as reported here yesterday by Judy Lash-Balint):


It’s possible that Sherwood, who seems to be gradually gaining insight into what makes Israel tick – an understanding, it seems, that accelerated markedly after a couple of rockets landed near Jerusalem, where she is based – actually acknowledges that potential occupants of these “settlement units” are just people for whom homes are being built, not cartoon characters drawn by the Guardian’s Steve Bell who live in “settlement units”.

If Palestinian leaders refuse to sit down and work with the Israelis in good faith to reach an agreed set of borders between Israel and a putative Palestinian State, Israel is giving notice that it will not sit and wait for the phone to ring.

Calling apartments Israel builds (while the PA refuses to negotiate any borders) “settlement units” will not make the apartments any less home to more and more Israelis, as Sherwood, at least and possibly alone among Guardian staff, may now understand.  

But when will the Palestinian Authority get the message?

O Little Near-By Town of Bethlehem: Christmas 2012

The following was published on Dec. 24 at Times of Israel by Judy Lash-Balint

Every Christmas I make the 15-minute drive from my Jerusalem home to Bethlehem for a reality check on the beleaguered town five miles away.

This year, contrary to the customary gloomy reports from the international media, things were bustling in Bethlehem on Christmas Eve. Bright blue skies and comfortable temperatures help make things more pleasant than in previous years when a cold, grey drizzle dampened spirits.


Driving up to the Rachel’s Passage checkpoint in my car with Israeli plates, a quick check of my press credentials is all that’s needed to get waved through. Tour buses and private cars get the same summary but courteous treatment by the Israeli soldiers stationed at the checkpoint.


In Bethlehem on the other side of the security barrier, the most striking thing this year is the massive presence of Palestinian police and other security personnel. Two uniformed men are stationed on every corner, at every intersection, and every 50 yards along the narrow streets leading from the checkpoint to Manger Square. Dozens of police cars, army vehicles, jeeps and assorted other cars with flashing lights are dotted all over town.

Palestine security personnel out in force on the streets of Bethlehem

Palestine security personnel out in force on the streets of Bethlehem

The European and Asian-funded restoration projects in Bethlehem’s old city have mostly now been completed, and Star Street that leads into Manger Square is a lovely pedestrian walkway lined with Ottoman-era buildings.  Flower-lined alleyways; interesting courtyards and steep, winding stairways lead off the street.



Inside the Church of the Nativity, scene of the 39-day siege by Arab terrorists in April 2002, lines form to get into the crypt. As sunlight pours in through the windows just below the ornate ceiling, tour guides lead their groups around the marble pillars and under the brass lamps adorned with Christmas baubles, while those selling candles do a brisk business among the predominantly Asian pilgrims.


This year, the center of Manger Square is packed with media and tourists, averting the scene I witnessed back in 2004 when hundreds of Moslems poured out of the mosque at the edge of the square and took over the area directly in front of the Church of the Nativity for midday prayers.


Another thing missing from previous years—the pictures of Yasser Arafat.  One or two small pictures of Yasser are still to be found on official buildings, but images of current Palestinian leaders Mahmoud Abbas and Salam Fayyad are nowhere to be seen, apart from on the window of one cop car.


And the ubiquitous martyr pictures of recent years?  A few hang forlornly on some shuttered shopfronts, but there are far more posters for upcoming concerts.

We get to Paul VI Street just in time to catch the traditional Palestinian bagpipe parade, where some fifty smartly uniformed musicians march through town squeezing their bagpipes to the accompaniment of several oversize booming drums.


Mid-afternoon, the local faithful are to be found at prayer in the Santa Caterina church in the grounds of the Church of the Nativity. Several thousand worshipers wait reverently to take part in the ritual as the voices of the choir resonate from the tall arched walls. Apart from a large presence of nuns, almost everyone in the church is Christian Arab. It’s clear from their dress and their bearing that they’re from the dwindling upper strata of Bethlehem society.


 In the Bethlehem Peace Center that houses the tourist information office in Manger Square, the standard Palestinian propaganda is on display.


On the way out of town, the Rachel’s Passage checkpoint has closed for some reason and we’re re-routed via picturesque Beit Jalla, a once-friendly village of ancient Christian origin that became the launchpad forArafat’s attacks on Israeli civilians in neighboring Gilo during the second intifada.  Today, Beit Jalla, like Bethlehem, is under Palestine Authority control and the streets are lined with PA security forces.

The road winding down from Beit Jalla to the Ein Yael checkpoint near Jerusalem’s Malcha train station boasts some of the most spectacular scenery in the area and provides time to adjust to re-entry to western Jerusalem, where it’s just another Monday in December.

[All photos © Judy Lash Balint.  All rights reserved]

‘The Jewish state which ruined Christmas in Bethlehem’: A Guardian Production

wise-men-tunnellingChristianity is close to extinct in the Middle East.

The only place in the region where Christians are free, and indeed thriving, is the Jewish state.

In contrast, a new study, highlighted at the Telegraph, warns that “Christians suffer greater hostility across the world than any other religious group” and quotes estimates that “between half and two-thirds of Christians in the Middle East have left the region or been killed in the past century.”

Yet, like a holiday ritual, Harriet Sherwood, in the spirit of Phoebe Greenwood’s ugly Guardian piece last year (‘If Jesus were to come this year Bethlehem would be closed’, Guardian, Dec. 22, 2011) chose to advance, as if by rote, a predictable Christmas tale of Israeli oppression against Christians.

Sherwood’s piece, Bethlehem Christians feel squeeze of settlements, avoids entirely any context about the comparative treatment of Christians in the Middle East, and myopically obsesses on the putative threat to Christians posed by Israeli “settlements” in the Jerusalem region.

Sherwood writes:

“In the birthplace of Jesus, the impact of Israeli settlements and their growth has been devastating.”

Sherwood then allows the following quote by Mahmoud Abbas to go unchallenged:

“For the first time in 2,000 years of Christianity in our homeland, the Holy Cities of Bethlehem and Jerusalem have been completely separated by Israeli settlements, racist walls and checkpoints.”

First, as CAMERA pointed out in response to Bob Simon’s 60 Minute piece:

“Maps provided by the Israeli Ministry of Foreign Affairs, the United NationsB’tselem, and the PLO all indicate that the security barrier is located to the north and west of the city, and does not completely surround Bethlehem.”

Further, all Sherwood would have needed to do was visit the site of the Palestine Visitor Information Center, where she could have found the following helpful information:

“Most of the travellers arrive to Bethlehem via Jerusalem.

Bus  no. 21 runs from the Arabic Bus Station at the Damascus Gate (“Bab el-’Amoud”) in East Jerusalem via Beit Jala to Bethlehem. The average trip length is 40 minutes and costs 7 NIS.”

The Palestine Visitor Information Center helpfully suggests other bus routes, the option of driving, or even, for the physically ambitious, a walking route.

There’s no warning on their site reflecting Abbas’s claim that the two Biblical cities are cut off.

Sherwood continues:

“The city is further hemmed in by the vast concrete and steel separation barrier, bypasses connecting settlements with Jerusalem and Tel Aviv, and Israeli military zones. With little room to expand, it is now more densely populated than Gaza, according to one Palestinian official.”

The Palestinian official was lying.

According to the PA’s own statistics, Bethlehem’s population density is 3,383 person/km, while the density of Gaza is higher at 4,603 person/km.  It should also be noted that Gaza is not even in the top 50 of most densely populated places on earth. (If the PA official was comparing Bethlehem to Gaza City, as opposed to the entire Gaza strip, naturally the disparity in density would be even greater).

Sherwood then turns to economic issues, writing:

“The wall already snakes around most of Bethlehem, its 8m-high concrete slabs casting a deep shadow, both literally and metaphorically. At the Christmas Tree restaurant, where there are almost no takers for the “Quick Lunches” on offer, business has slowed to a standstill since the wall blocked what was once the main Jerusalem-Bethlehem road. Scores of shops along the closed-off artery have shut down altogether.”

“…the lack of routine access has had a dire impact on businesses and employment rates.”

The suggestion that Bethlehem is economically depressed is another profound distortion, as the city has been experiencing an economic boom over the last few years, with the number of tourists (and hotel stays) having dramatically increased over the last few years.

In fact, the narrative advanced in Sherwood’s passage was contradicted by Sherwood herself, in a piece published a couple of days earlier (Dec. 21), ‘No room at the inn – but Bethlehem’s popularity is a boon to Palestinians, where she wrote:

“Tens of thousands of pilgrims and tourists are expected to visit the birthplace of Jesus over Christmas. All of the West Bank city’s 3,700 hotel rooms are likely to be filled, with thousands more visitors making day trips from nearby Jerusalem.

This year has seen a 20% growth in the numbers of visitors to Bethlehem compared with the previous year, and officials hope for a further rise in tourism to Palestine next year. The biggest number of tourists – more than a quarter – come from Russia.

Officials are heartened by the increasing number of visitors who are opting to stay in hotels in Bethlehem rather than just making the trip from Jerusalem. The number of overnight stays is expected to reach 1.5m by the end of this year.

The city is planning to increase the number of hotel beds, offer improved packages and invest in marketing and promotion…”

Undeterred, Sherwood continues:

“Bethlehem has one of the highest rates of unemployment of all West Bank cities, at 18%, says Vera Baboun, who was elected as its first female mayor in October. “We are a strangulated city, with no room for expansion due to the settlements and the wall.””

However, according to the PA’s own statistics, any suggestion of a causation between the security fence and unemployment in Bethlehem is not supportable. In 2002 for instance, two years before the fence’s completion om 2004*, the unemployment rate was higher (at 20%) than the current rate.  Inexplicably, unemployment in Bethlehem actually dropped in 2005 and 2006 to 13.4 and 13.7% respectively. So, at the very least, unemployment figures for Bethlehem don’t seem at all to correspond with the fence’s construction history.

Sherwood’s narrative then descends even further with the following passage:

“In a booklet to mark Christmas 2012, Kairos Palestine, a Christian alliance, says: “Land confiscation, as well as the influx of Israeli settlers, suggest that there will be no future for Palestinians (Christian or Muslim) in [this] area. In this sense, the prospect of a clear ‘solution’ grows darker every day”.

However, Kairos, as CAMERA has documented, is certainly not a group dedicated at all to “peace, love and understanding”.

A 2009 Kairos document calls the Israeli “occupation” a “sin against God,” and characterizes Palestinian acts of terror as “legal resistance.” 

The document also states that if “there were no occupation, there would be no resistance, no fear and no insecurity.”

As CAMERA asked in response to such specious occupation causation:

“Really? Then why did the rocket attacks against Israel increase after it withdrew from the Gaza Strip in 2005?”

More importantly, the Kairos quote insidiously suggests something of a policy of ethnic cleansing (Israel’s “solution”) of both Muslims and Christians in the West Bank, a suggestion which is matched in sheer malice by the demographic lie. Here are a couple of population facts:

  • The population of Christians in Bethlehem and surrounding area has increased since 1967 (when Israel took control of the West Bank), which (as CAMERA noted) stands in “contrast to the decline of the Christian population in the West Bank when it was under Jordanian control.”
  •  The Christian population in Israel proper has risen from 34,000 in 1948 to over 150,000 today.

Additionally, as Akus noted in a post last Christmas, the Church of England, for instance, is quite aware of the demographic realities for Christians in the Middle East. A report by the Church noted the following:

“While Christians have fled from areas controlled by Hamas and the Palestinian Authority, in Israel their numbers have grown rapidly. The Statistical Abstract of Israel 2008 reports that Israel’s Christian population grew from 120,600 in 1995 to 151,600 in 2007, representing a growth rate of 25 per cent — a rate faster than the growth of the country’s Jewish population.”

That the place in the Middle East where the population of Christians is growing just happens to be the sole country where Islamism is not a serious threat is essential to understanding the fate of Christianity in that part of the world – context about the contrasting religious freedom, tolerance and democratic values in the Middle East which Harriet Sherwood’s reports on the region do not provide.  

Finally, the report linked to in the first sentence of this post concluded that the “lion’s share” of persecution faced by Christians arises in countries where Islam is the dominant faith”.  Specifically, the reports adds, “the most common threat to Christians abroad is militant Islam“, and further argues that oppression against Christians in Muslim countries is often ignored because of a fear that criticism will be seen as “racism.”

Such religious bigotry – in places like Gaza, Lebanon, Egypt, Turkey, Pakistan, Afghanistan, Nigeria, Bangladesh and elsewhere - includes physical violence, attacks on churches, forced conversions, and the imposition of Sharia law.  

Moreover, is it really even debatable that the antagonist in Sherwood’s Christmas tale, Israel’s security fence, was only necessitated by terror attacks launched largely by adherents to the same brand of radical Islamism which has prompted so many Middle East Christians to flee?  

While truly fearless crusading dailies would boldly tackle the real cleansing of Christians from Arab lands as the result of Islamist militancy, CiF Watch does not monitor a broadsheet which engages in such truly courageous journalism.

We monitor the Guardian.

(*Fence construction information obtained from Dany Tirza who served as the IDF’s chief architect for the Security Fence.)

Harriet Sherwood advances myth that Bethlehem is being “economically strangled” by Israel

A recent report by Harriet Sherwood entitled “Palestine seeks world heritage status for Church of the Nativity“, from June 27th, contained a few passages about the city of Bethlehem only tangentially related to the main theme in the story, including this:

“Most pilgrim and tourist buses, run by Israeli or international companies, tour the holy sites in around two hours, bypassing local businesses. Such fleeting visits contribute to the economic strangulation of once-thriving Bethlehem, the main cause of which is the imposing 8m-high concrete separation wall dotted with military watchtowers and checkpoints that Israel began building 10 years ago.” [emphasis added]

Sherwood’s narrative about the “economic strangulation” of Bethlehem was also echoed in a quote used by Phoebe Greenwood, in “If Jesus were to come this year to come this year Bethlehem would be closed“, December 22nd, 2011.

Greenwood wrote:

“Dr Jad Isaac, an expert in Bethlehem’s demographics and a consultant to the Palestinian president, Mahmoud Abbas, says aside from the physical restrictions on development, Bethlehem’s economy is being strangled by the loss of land and restrictions on Palestinian movement.” [emphasis added]

Additionally, Sherwood’s specific claim about tourists only spending the day in the city (and not spending the night) was also advanced in a LA Times story, on December 20th, 2011, by Edmund Sanders, titled “This Holy Land battle focuses on tourists’ wallets“.

“The third-generation wood-carver, who sells handmade likenesses of baby Jesus and the Virgin Mary, sees as many as 200 tour buses arrive every day from Israel to visit the Church of the Nativity, just a few steps from his store.  But the tourists are escorted directly from the bus to the church and back again. They’re rarely given time to browse the shops nearby and almost never spend the night in Bethlehem.” [emphasis added]

However, Reuters reported the following – only four days prior to Greenwood’s December 22nd report:

“With millions of tourists expected in the West Bank town of Bethlehem during Christmas, local merchants and tourism officials say they are enjoying an economic boomPalestinian minister of tourism, Kholod Daibes, predicted that two million tourists will visit the city by the end of 2011.

We expect to attract greater numbers who are making a special visit so there will be more who stay in the Palestinian hotels, especially when the number of rooms and facilities is increasing,” she said. Daibes said that despite the Arab Spring revolutions in the region, which is expected to impact on tourist numbers, the outlook is still better than in previous years.” [emphasis added]

In December 2010 Bloomberg News, in a story titled “Bethlehem Business Reborn as Christmas Tourism boosts Palestinian Statehood“, similarly reported on the city’s economic success:

“…the rebirth of Bethlehem, where 80 shops — 12 of which opened this year — line the street that runs into Manger Square and the Church of the Nativity.

Tourism is up, with 1.45 million visitors to Bethlehem, 60 percent more than in 2009, the Palestinian Tourism Ministry said. About $250 million has been spent in the city’s hotels, restaurants and shopping centers, up 60 percent from a year ago and accounting for about a third of all Palestinian tourism revenue, the ministry said.”

The Bloomberg report specifically refuted Sherwood’s claim that tourists, run by Israeli operators, were bypassing Palestinian shops and only spending a couple of hours in the town.

More of the tourists who visited Bethlehem stayed overnight this year, leading to a 45 percent increase in hotel stays from 2009, Tourism Minister Khouloud Daibes told reporters last week. The Palestinians’ share of tourism revenue from visitors to Israel and the Palestinian territories has risen this year to 10 percent, from 3 percent to 5 percent in past years, she said.”


So, where precisely did Sherwood obtain her economic data purportedly demonstrating a strangled economy?

We’ll never know.

Neither Sherwood nor her editors deemed it necessary to back up her claim with a source.

But, of course, who needs facts when you have a broader narrative of Israeli oppression which can be used regardless of the particular circumstances, and which doesn’t require burdensome little details like dry empirical data?

My tour of Dheisheh Refugee Camp, near Bethlehem

Entrance to Dheisheh

The Dheisheh refugee camp, adjacent to Bethlehem, was established as a temporary refuge for 3,400 Palestinians from 45 villages west of Jerusalem and Hebron who fled during the 1948 Arab-Israeli War. The population is now over 13,000, more than 95% of whom were born after 1948. 

Dheisheh town below symbol of red “T”

Shortly after making aliyah (and more than a year before joining CiF Watch) I went on a tour of the Dheisheh Refugee Camp and it recently occurred to me that it would be a good idea (in the context of our blog’s critiques of the Guardian’s narrative of the Palestinian refugee issue) to collect my notes and briefly post about my experiences on that day.

The trip was prompted by a friend who is sympathetic to the Palestinian cause and has contacts in the Palestinian territories. (All photos seen below were taken by me, or my friend, on the day of the tour.)

My friend knew that my politics were much different than hers but, as a new Oleh and someone quite inquisitive by nature, I possessed a desire to know as much as possible about the subject, as an aid to debating the Israeli-Palestinian Conflict vis-à-vis  the “refugee” issue.  As such, first-hand knowledge of a “refugee camp” immediately struck me as something quite valuable.

She had a friend who ran a UN funded recreation center in Dheisheh called al-Feneiq - known simply as The Phoenix – which is where, after a bus and cab ride from the center of Jerusalem that lasted a little over a half hour, my guided tour (with my friend and an acquaintance) began. The community center itself is a nicely equipped facility, containing a kitchen, guest house, gym, library, cultural performance venue and a play room for children.

The tour of the town itself was led by another resident of Dheisheh (and volunteer at The Phoenix), who walked us around the area, stopping to point out particular sites of interest and explain (in broken but mostly understandable English) a bit of the town’s history.

I had expressed to my friend prior to our tour that I would prefer to see the area with my own eyes and make whatever determinations I could, and our guide largely refrained from gratuitous remarks about Israel culpability and was quite friendly and a good listener. He would, nonetheless, occasionally relate stories of the IDF destroying specific buildings in the area that were being used by terrorists, at the same time clearly indicating that he didn’t believe the justification given by the Israelis.

Periodically our guide would, in a non-judgmental tone, confirm that some of the graffiti we’d see in the neighborhood was the image of deceased terrorists – serving as an urban memorial of sorts. One such image “commemorated” the life of a “martyr” belonging to the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine (PFLP) – a Marxist-Leninist terrorist group responsible for terrorist attacks which have killed dozens of Israeli citizens. Other graffiti/art we came across included similar images of “resistance”, including several images of Che Guevara.

Mural of a PFLP “Shahid” at Deheisheh

What we came across in Dheisheh’s densely populated winding, hilly streets didn’t in any way resemble a “refugee camp” as such, at least according to how I had imagined it as a casual consumer of Middle East news back in the U.S.

The community actually resembled some of the inner city neighborhoods (ghettos) in Philadelphia, New York and other large cities in the U.S. Many of the homes were indeed run down and the area was full of what we would call urban blight – structures, for whatever reason, in complete disrepair or partially or fully demolished. 

However, amongst this relative poverty, there were also a large number of homes which, though modest, were intact – and more than a few had satellite dishes. In the market district there were several eateries (one of which we stopped at for lunch), vegetable stalls, butcher’s shops, dry goods stores, other miscellaneous retail, at least two high-speed internet and computer centers, a medical center and another smaller community/sports center.

At the end of our tour the three of us drank coffee with our guide and a couple of his friends at the community center’s cafe. After about a half hour or so I noticed out of the corner of my eye that our Palestinian hosts were staring strangely at me, muttering something to one another in Arabic.  Our guide asked what I was wearing around my neck. I replied that it was my Star of David which, to be honest, I hadn’t thought (quite naively in hindsight) would be a problem. (Indeed, on a subsequent official media tour of Ramallah our guides gave us strict instructions not to wear kippot or any Jewish symbols while in the city.)

Though their reaction to my Jewish symbol was reserved, I was still a bit skeptical that they truly didn’t know what it was, as the Israeli flag contains the same symbol and they’ve surely seen that before. My friend who organized the tour, and had spent time with our host previously, then (perhaps to sensing a bit of tension) asked cheerfully: “Oh, you didn’t know I was Jewish?”  “No”, he said, before abruptly changing the subject.

I am sure that, at least initially, he perceived me as being like my other two friends on the tour (who were also Jewish but politically pro-Palestinian) – “activists” sympathetic to the Palestinian cause, and I certainly didn’t go out of my way to dissuade him of this assumption on the tour. I listened to what he said, regardless of how critical he was of Israel, with a neutral or inquisitive look. I had decided early in the day that I would not, in my conversation and overall affect, lie or pretend to share his hostility to Israel, but that I also would not be argumentative or confrontational – which, in other circumstances, would have been my natural reaction to what I perceived as propaganda.

I was there, ultimately, on something of a fact-finding tour and was thankful for the opportunity.

The Palestinian “refugee” story narrative is a subject I have written about at CiF Watch periodically. Without a specific understanding of the communities and their residents, I could easily see “neutral” (or not so neutral) observers assuming Israeli culpability in every demolished building, every story of woe and suffering that we encountered along the way.

It is this facile causation between every conceivable case of Palestinian suffering and Israeli actions that feeds into the delegitimization of Israel.

The “camp” literally borders the relatively prosperous city of Bethlehem, and it occurred to me at the time (as it does now) how strange it was that the PA has not decided to kick out UNRWA and simply incorporate Dheisheh into greater Bethlehem.

Finally, my tour was ultimately motivated by the desire to meet at least some real Palestinian Arabs, so that my Zionist politics don’t merely deal with their population as the Palestinian abstraction – the manner so common at the Guardian and most of the MSM, who  often advance fictive illustrations of the region divorced from their complex (and often sobering) reality. 

Here are some more photos from Dheisheh.

Mural at Dheisheh community center: Here’s the Arabic on the mural translated into English, courtesy of Elder of Ziyon: “My enemy, enemy of the sun, I will not compromise and I will resist till the last pulse in my veins”

Another mural in Dheisheh

Another mural

View of Dheisheh from community center coffee shop

Here I’m engaging our tour guide (diplomatically) in a discussion he initiated about terrorism, and other contentious issues.

One of my friends is seated next to me on my right, across from our Palestinian hosts. This was the coffee break at Dheisheh community center, around the time that my Magen David was “discovered”.

Global March to Jerusalem violence update: & +972′s Lisa Goldman gets owned by IDF on Twitter

Though GMJ organizers’ ambitious anti-Zionist plan for a million man march on Israel’s borders (part of an effort by Arabs and far-left “activists” to “steal Jerusalem from the hands of the illegal Zionist occupation) has, thus far, seemed to have failed miserably, here’s a brief update on GMJ related violence today:
  • Approximately 150 violent rioters in Bethlehem hurled rocks and firebombs at Israeli security personnel (see video below).
  • Approximately 200 rioters in Qalandia hurled rocks and firebombs at IDF forces. 
  • Though the media (including the Guardian’s Phoebe Greenwood) have been uncritically repeating Palestinian claims that politician Mustafa Barghouti was hit in the head by a tear gas canister, requiring medical treatment, the IDF contradicted these claims stating definitively that Barghouti was hurt in a brawl that broke out among the Palestinians over who would lead the protest march. 
  • The IDF responded to Palestinian violence with non-lethal riot dispersal means.

Elsewhere there was this exchange between +972′s Lisa Goldman and the IDF on Twitter.

I just couldn’t help but weigh in.

Here’s a photo of just one of the “protesters” in Bethlehem today – aka, Palestinian child abuse.

Denis MacEeoin’s letter to Archbishop Vincent Nichols, on his criticism of Israel during Christmas sermon

This letter is published with the permission of Denis MacEeoin (editor of Middle East Quarterlyand is a reply to Rev. Nichols’ Christmas sermon which singled out Israel for criticism. 

The Most Reverend Vincent Nichols DD

Your Grace,

I hope you will forgive my writing at such a busy time of year, but I have a serious concern that will not wait for expression. I am not a Catholic, but my concern is, in the main, not about your religion, but your politics. To introduce myself briefly, I am a writer and a former lecturer in Arabic and Islamic Studies with a serious interest in Iran and the Middle East in general. Late on Christmas Day my attention was drawn to your Midnight Mass homily. When I found a copy online, I found it well expressed and diligent in its portrayal of the mysteries you set out to expound. But since I am not a religious man, I can make no better comment on the homily and its religious content. It would be inexpressively arrogant of me to challenge you on any of that, nor did I feel compelled to do so.

As you may already have surmised, my problem lies with your departure into political matters in a manner that, I believe, exposes you to real and spontaneous criticism. You wrote a short introduction to this theme in words I find no fault with, but for which I had heartfelt agreement:

‘We are to see clearly the reality of the world around us. As we look at the real circumstances of Christ’s birth so too we look with fresh eyes on the anxieties and insecurity which touch many peoples’ lives. We are to be freshly attentive to the needs of those who, like Jesus himself, are displaced and in discomfort. We are to see more clearly all those things which disfigure our world, the presence of the sins of greed and arrogance, of self-centred ambition and manipulation of others, of the brutal lack of respect for human life in all its vulnerability. While recognizing how complex moral dilemmas can become, we are to name these things for what they are. We too live “in a land of deep shadow”.’

Just last week, I watched a three-part television adaptation of the Nativity story. You may have seen it yourself. It was dramatically balanced, presenting both the religious narrative and the harsh realities of life in first century Judaea: Mary’s fear of being stoned, Joseph’s anxiety about his attachment to a sixteen-year-old girl who has fallen mysteriously pregnant, Herod’s fear of the Romans, the shepherds’ distress under Herod’s rule, and much else. Your connection of the Nativity to contemporary suffering is perfectly balanced; but your later application of that principle leaves much to be desired, almost certainly as a result of your ignorance of the realities of life in the West Bank. Such ignorance is widespread, so I do not single you out for sharing in it. But your calling and stature make it vital for you to get something like this right, otherwise your words will pass on shadows of that ignorance to all who hear and read you and will darken the minds of another generation.

You say that ‘We too live “in a land of deep shadow”,’ and I don’t doubt the veracity of it. What you mean exactly by ‘a land’ is neither here nor there, since most of the world is in some kind of darkness and has always been so. It is the curse of the human race. We are in agreement. But in a moment we are not. You continue by saying:

‘That shadow falls particularly heavily on the town of Bethlehem tonight. At this moment the people of the parish of Beit Jala prepare for their legal battle to protect their land and homes from further expropriation by Israel. Over 50 families face losing their land and their homes as action is taken to complete the separation/security wall across the territory of the district of Bethlehem. We pray for them tonight.’

‘Particularly heavily’?

Can you in all sincerity say that your singling out of events in Beit Jala merits that use of  ‘particularly’? A difficult and misunderstood situation for some people becomes a paradigm for the shadow enveloping mankind?

Of all the people in the world, you single out 50 Christian families in Beit Jala and expect those who hear you to recoil, cut to the heart by the horrors of that situation. You speak as if the world had no greater shadow to offer. Thousands have died and are dying in neighbouring Syria, but that gets no mention from you.

An entire population is repressed and religious minorities are persecuted in Iran and you say nothing. Muslims who convert to Christianity in Pakistan, Afghanistan and elsewhere are put to death, yet you are silent.

In Egypt, Coptic Christians are killed and persecuted and their churches are destroyed, yet you cannot find a sentence in which to condemn it.

Christians are not allowed to possess Bibles or to worship or seek converts in Saudi Arabia, yet your voice is not raised.

Christians are murdered and their churches burned to the ground in Nigeria, but I do not hear your voice.

Yet Muslims are free to worship, open schools, have their own courts, and missionize in every Western country, yet you do not point out the anomaly.

Instead, it is the predictable condemnation of one of the world’s most democratic, liberal, and tolerant states that occupies your thoughts. You speak of a ‘separation/security wall’ without irony. Overall, this barrier is not a wall, it is a fence: it will be about 500 miles long when finished, and only about 3 percent of it will be a wall or is a wall now. There are very cogent reasons why some sections are built from concrete and are very high, unlike the rest, which is primarily chain-link fence. When the second intifada erupted in 2000, gunmen belonging to Fatah Tanzim squads went into mainly Christian houses in Beit Jala and used them as strategic points from which to fire into the Jewish civilian enclave of Gilo, a mere 800 meters away. They fired at first with Kalashnikovs and stolen M16s, then with heavy machine guns. The battles fought in Beit Jala, together with the return fire the Fatah shooting provoked, caused great difficulties for the Christians of the town, who wanted to stay apart from the Muslim-centred violence, whereas the Muslims of the Tanzim wanted to attract return fire into Christian properties. Not surprisingly, the Christian residents tried to force these terrorists (many of whom were from outside Beit Jala) outside their homes. In retaliation, the gunmen beat Christians badly. Christian women were harassed by Muslim men from a nearby village, Beit Awwad.

That violence was spread throughout the West Bank and Gaza. Hundreds were killed by terrorist attacks and suicide bombings, and hundreds more on the Arab side when Israeli troops fired back. It was the second intifada, on top of thousands of similar incidents since 1948, that impelled the Israelis to take hard action against those who wanted to kill them, to attack them specifically as Jews, and to wipe them out or expel them entirely from the Holy Land. Building the barrier was and is harsh to many who live in the West Bank, but it has cut terrorist attacks by over ninety percent. That is an achievement that must be taken into consideration before any condemnation of the wall or the fence. It was never the Israelis who started the violence, nor do they seek to continue it.

Tragically, the barrier did not prevent a hideous massacre in March of this year, when two Palestinian youths entered the Jewish settlement of Itamar, not very many miles from Bethlehem. They took knives and murdered five members of the same family in their sleep, including a five-month-old girl, whom they decapitated. The bodies of her mother, father, two younger brothers and baby sister were found by twelve-year Tamar Fogel, when she stumbled on a scene of such carnage that I flinch to describe it. It is in attacks like this that Israeli toughness begins, in which the plan for a long security barrier was born.

I know that some of the actions that have been taken to build or expand the barrier have resulted in injustice. But I weigh such injustice against several things. I weigh it against the photographs I was sent of the Fogel family massacre and the courage of young Tamar Fogel in facing up to her future as an orphan, yet still committed to her faith and her land. I weigh it against my understanding of how Israel behaves as a country. Israelis have a deep commitment to justice, something achingly evident in the number of times their Supreme Court has ruled against the government, not least in the matter of the security barrier.

In 2004, for example, the Court ruled that ‘The route that the military commander established for the security fence … injures the local inhabitants in a severe and acute way while violating their rights under humanitarian and international law.’ The route was changed. In 2005, the Court issued an injunction against the government and the Israeli Defence Forces against the building of the fence round the village of Iskaka, and in the same year forced a halt to the barrier’s construction near Ramallah. Similar rulings have continued to the present day. If the appropriation of land in Beit Jala is illegal and can be shown to have merit, the case will undoubtedly receive a hearing. It may take time for such a case to pass through the judicial system, but what country can offer instant justice save one that makes no pretence at consideration, due process, or justice?

If justice is your concern – and I see no reason for it not to be – may I please ask you to direct your criticisms to Iran, where sentences of death are passed in minutes, or to Syria, where justice is firmly in the hands of the regime, or to Saudi Arabia, where a misdemeanour may take you after Friday prayers to the main square in Riyadh, where an executioner’s sword will quickly teach you manners.

Israel, by contrast, has always applied its laws fairly and justly. The only person Israel has ever hanged was Adolph Eichmann, one of the planners of the Holocaust. There is no death penalty, even for the most horrendous acts of terror. This year, in return for a single Israeli soldier, who had been kidnapped illegally and kept incommunicado even from the Red Cross for many years, the Israeli state sanctioned the release of over one thousand Palestinian prisoner, many of them with hands stained by the blood of innocents and children.

Israel has well-enforced laws to protect the rights of women, homosexuals, and members of religious minorities.

Although Muslims have at various times destroyed synagogues in Jerusalem and elsewhere, the Israelis have long recognized that control of their own holiest site, the Temple Mount, is vested in the Muslim waqf authority and that control of almost the entirety of the second holiest structure of the Jewish faith, the Ma’arat Ha-Machpelah is also under the authority of the waqf Council. When I visited this shrine – the resting places of Abraham, Sarah, and Isaac with other patriarchs – we found ourselves squeezed into a tiny space, while Muslim visitors had full run of the place.  There is a lack of balance between the two.

In Iran, the regime has destroyed all the holy places and cemeteries of its own largest religious minority, the Baha’is. In Israel, the Baha’is practise their faith openly and have established their international centre in a series of dazzling buildings and luscious gardens that are now a UNESCO World Heritage Site of remarkable beauty.

I ask you to judge here whether it is customary for the people of Israel to behave towards non-Jews with contumely, for it is the implication of that deep shadow that hovers over your sermon. If you do indeed mean the Israelis, if you do indeed think of them as bearers of that shadow, I must ask why. Why are Israelis thought to embody the heavy shadow of your accusation when true haters of mankind abound yet are never the targets of your anger. And if it is not the Israelis as Israelis but the Israelis as Jews, I think you will agree with my that that cannot be a helpful road down which to travel.

I write all that as a sort of prelude to a wider discussion. There is much at stake here. That muchness derives from your singular attention to a single place, or two contingent places, Bethlehem and Beit Jala. It would be easy for the uninformed to conclude that the Israelis are bent on the expulsion of Christian families, who are in your sermon portrayed as the victims of an arbitrary Israel ruling. That is not how it seems to me.

After the Palestinian Authority took control of most of the West Bank in 1995, Muslim families from Hebron (where Jews are very badly treated) and elsewhere moved to Beit Jala and illegally seized private land and property. This came on top of a long period when pressure was placed on Arab Christians to migrate from towns like Nazareth, Bethlehem, and elsewhere. 

In 1914, Christians constituted 26.4 percent of the total population in what today is Israel, the Palestinian areas, Jordan, Lebanon and Syria, while by 2005 they represented at most 9.2 percent (Phillipe Fargues, “The Arab Christians of the Middle East: A Demographic Perspective,” in Christian Communities in the Arab Middle East, Andrea Pacini, ed, Oxford University Press).

But the same thing is emphatically not true of Israel.

In 1949, one year after Israel was founded, the country’s Christian population numbered 34,000 souls. That figure has grown by 345 percent. It is still growing. Between 1995 and 2007, Israeli Christians grew from 120,600 to 151,600, representing a growth rate of 25 percent. In fact, the Christian growth rate outpaced the Jewish growth in Israel in the same period.

It is not a coincidence that Christians thrive in the only non-Muslim state in the Middle East and diminish in all the Muslim states. This does not surprise me, for Islam has a long history of intolerance towards Jews and Christians, and religious sensitivities take precedence for many, regardless of the nationalist and economic dimensions of the conflict.

Let me cite some relevant statements by the well-known Muslim-Arab journalist, Khaled Abu Toameh, who brings a hidden problem into the open. Writing in 2009, he says:

‘Christian families have long been complaining of intimidation and land theft by Muslims, especially those working for the Palestinian Authority.

‘Many Christians in Bethlehem and the nearby [Christian] towns of Bet Sahour and Beit Jalla have repeatedly complained that Muslims have been seizing their lands either by force or through forged documents. . . .

‘Moreover, several Christian women living in these areas have complained about verbal and sexual assaults by Muslim men.

‘Over the past few years, a number of Christian businessmen told me that they were forced to shut down their businesses because they could no longer afford to pay “protection” money to local Muslim gangs.

‘While it is true that the Palestinian Authority does not have an official policy of persecution against Christians, it is also true that this authority has not done enough to provide the Christian population with a sense of security and stability.

‘In addition, Christians continue to complain about discrimination when it comes to employment in the public sector. Since the establishment of the Palestinian Authority 15 years ago, not a single Christian was ever appointed to a senior security post. Although Bethlehem has a Christian mayor, the governor, who is more senior than him, remains a Muslim.’

May I recommend you also read this valuable report written by David Raab and published by a very sound think tank, The Jerusalem Center for Public Affairs?

A statement by the Palestinian Authority Information Ministry makes it clear that ‘The Palestinian people are also governed by Shari’a law… With regard to issues pertaining to religious matters. According to Shari’a Law, applicable throughout the Muslim world, any Muslim who [converts] or declares becoming an unbeliever is committing a major sin punishable by capital punishment… The [Palestinian Authority] cannot take a different position on this matter.’

Such rulings have a major effect on all Christian churches and make life impossible for potential converts, who are only safe if they seek refuge in Israel or go abroad.

Let me cite a couple more passages from reports that make this same point in fresh ways.

An Israeli government report in 1997 asserted more direct harassment of Christians by the PA.

In August 1997, Palestinian policemen in Beit Sahur opened fire on a crowd of Christian Arabs, wounding six. The Palestinian Authority is attempting to cover up the incident and has warned against publicizing the story. The local commander of the Palestinian police instructed journalists not to report on the incident….

In late June 1997, a Palestinian convert to Christianity in the northern West Bank was arrested by agents of the Palestinian Authority’s Preventive Security Service. He had been regularly attending church and prayer meetings and was distributing Bibles. The Palestinian Authority ordered his arrest….

The pastor of a church in Ramallah was recently warned by Palestinian Authority security agents that they were monitoring his evangelistic activities in the area and wanted him to come in for questioning for spreading Christianity.

A Palestinian convert to Christianity living in a village near Nablus was recently arrested by the Palestinian police. A Muslim preacher was brought in by the police, and he attempted to convince the convert to return to Islam. When the convert refused, he was brought before a Palestinian court and sentenced to prison for insulting the religious leader….

A Palestinian convert to Christianity in Ramallah was recently visited by Palestinian policemen at his home and warned that if he continued to preach Christianity, he would be arrested and charged with being an Israeli spy.

Another report in 2002, based on Israeli intelligence gathered during Israel’s Defensive Shield operation, asserts that ‘The Fatah and Arafat’s intelligence network intimidated and maltreated the Christian population in Bethlehem. They extorted money from them, confiscated land and property and left them to the mercy of street gangs and other criminal activity, with no protection.

Your fifty families – if, indeed, there are fifty families – will, at worst, face a legal battle, knowing they will be vindicated if their claims are valid. Israel will not set their homes alight, nor gun them down, nor desecrate their churches nor violate their priests nor execute their converts. It will not do to them what the Muslims of Egypt have done in a long and systematic persecution. It will not do to them what the Taliban have done to Christians in Afghanistan and Pakistan. It will not intimidate or hector or torture or kill them. It’s time this was recognized, especially by a leading churchman like yourself.

The Christians of Beit Jala are, I suspect, being used to put pressure on Israel. The protest may well be part of a long and insidious campaign to malign and weaken Israel in the eyes of the world. Thus, Israel has been described as an ‘apartheid’ when it is, in fact, free of all traces of apartheid.

What racism there is is on the same level as that found in the UK.

Israel has been called a ‘Nazi state’ in an attempt to hurt Jews in the most painful way imaginable. It has been termed an ‘intolerant state’ when its reputation for racial, religious, and other forms of tolerance raises it above most nations.

I believe you owe the people of Israel an apology or an explanation. They need to know why you chose to single them out, selecting their actions as particularly examples of the shadows that lie on us. I cannot see Israel as a shadow, though I have seen it as a country surrounded by shadows all its life. It is a country of hope for millions. It has been a safe hand in securing the safety of Christianity’s holiest places, places that would fall into disrepair and be threatened with ruin should Israel be replaced by an Arab state, in direct allegiance to Islamic law, which forbids the repair of Christian churches or synagogues.

I have, I fear, abused your hospitality. I hope you have been able to spare the time to read my little letter. I trust it has given you cause for thought. What may arise from that is entirely up to you. I believe I have played my part, but if you know more, I can point you in other directions. Thank you for troubling to read so far. I have trusted that you would, and I have trusted in your innate goodness to awaken in your conscience new insights into the behaviour of a country that seeks peace when others lust for war.

Yours most sincerely,

Dr. Denis MacEoin

Are UK Archbishops leading their Christians into the Coliseum?

A guest post by AKUS

Christmas in Nigeria was met with a horrendous attack by Islamic extremists on a church where a congregation of Christians was celebrating their holiday.

The United States’ National Public Radio (NPR) had no problem citing an Associated Press report that gave the religious identity of the perpetrators and brief summary of their activities.

Explosion Rips Through Church In Nigeria

An explosion ripped through a Catholic church during Christmas Mass near Nigeria’s capital Sunday, killing at least 25 people, officials said. A radical Muslim sect claimed responsibility for the attack and another bombing near a church in the restive city of Jos, as explosions also struck the nation’s northeast.

The Christmas Day attacks show the growing national ambition of the sect known as Boko Haram, which is responsible for at least 491 killings this year alone, according to an Associated Press count. The assaults come a year after a series of Christmas Eve bombings in Jos claimed by the militants left at least 32 dead and 74 wounded.

On the other hand, as Robin Shepherd’s “Commentator” pointed out:

The BBC was practically performing somersaults to avoid using the ‘I’ word. But on their website even they had to acknowledge, though still somewhat obliquely, that the perpetrators were almost certainly going to be Islamists:

“Security has been high after violence between Islamist gunmen and soldiers in northern Nigeria,” as Britain’s impeccably politically correct state broadcaster put it.

Meanwhile, the BBC did not hesitate to report that at Christmas mass in Westminster Cathedral the head of the Catholic Church in England and Wales, Vincent Nichols, was worrying about Israel and the Palestinians:

During his Christmas Mass sermon at Westminster Cathedral, Archbishop Nichols focused on 50 Palestinian families in the West Bank who he said faced losing their land to Israel.

He said: “At this moment the people of the parish of Beit Jala in Bethlehem prepare for their legal battle to protect their homes and their land from further expropriation from Israel… we pray for them tonight.”

As we typically see in the rabidly anti-Israeli Guardian, the Archbishop used Christmas and Bethlehem to direct an attack on Israel. Do we even know if there are 50 families, or do they exist only on the anti-Israeli websites? Do they need the Archbishop’s prayers when appealing to one of the world’s most respected judiciaries which has repeatedly ruled in favor of Palestinians on land issues?

After all, anyone with any real knowledge of the issues on the West Bank knows how complicated they can be, and how simplistic reports by interested parties can hide the complexity of what really happens there. For example, this report from Agence France-Press in August 2010 - “In gesture of peace progress, Israel demolishes massive concrete barrier” - tells a very different story and includes some context that explains why the security barrier was needed near Beit Jala:

Israeli troops on Sunday began demolishing a huge concrete wall erected nine years ago to prevent shooting attacks towards Gilo, a Jewish neighbourhood in occupied east Jerusalem.

Or, these reports from Wikipedia’s section on Beit_Jala:

During the Second Intifada, Tanzim militants used Beit Jala as a base for launching launch sniper and mortar attacks[14] on the Jerusalem neighborhood of Gilo.[15] Gilo is located on a hilltop across from Beit Jala, partially on the lands of Beit Safafa and Sharafat.[16] The Israeli government built a concrete barrier and installed bulletproof windows in homes and schools facing Beit Jala.[17] The gunmen positioned themselves in or near Christian homes and churches in the knowledge that a slight deviation in Israeli return fire would harm Christian buildings.[18]

There have been incidents of tension between Christians and Muslims in Beit Jala since the Palestinian Authority took over in 1995. Many Muslim families from Hebron and other parts of the West Bank moved to Beit Jala and illegally seized privately owned lands. Christian residents who tried to prevent Tanzim gunmen in Beit Jala from firing at the Israeli settlement of Gilo were beaten by the gunmen who were also accused of raping and murdering two sisters. There have been reports by Christian women in Beit Jala of being harassed by Muslim men from the village of Beit Awwa in the Hebron area.[24] Muslim and Christian political leaders say that the violence is mostly the result of “personally motivated” disputes and deny the existence of an organized anti-Christian campaign.[24]

But more startling in this context, if he wishes to turn his attention to world affairs, was Nichols’ avoidance of any mention of the repeated attacks carried out against Christians almost throughout the Islamic world.

As Robin Shepherd commented more generally:

Every atrocity perpetrated against Christians in the name of Islam, by contrast, seems all too quickly to be brushed under the carpet.

While lamenting the pending “legal battle”, Nichols is oblivious to the way Christians have been forced out of Gaza and Bethlehem by Islamists, without any “legal battle”.

If the “50 families” do exist, is the prospect of waging a “legal battle” which they will win if their claim is justified in any way a greater matter than Christians being blown up in Nigeria, Pakistan and Iraq, beaten and burnt to death in Egypt, thrown out of Gaza, or having their lands stolen by Moslems in the West Bank?

When the Islamists force the Christians out, it is with stones, guns, and bombs, not “legal battles”, but Nichols cannot bring himself, as Shepherd says of the BBC, to say the “I word”.

In the last week we have seen approximately 150 people killed by Islamic bombers in Iraq, Pakistan, Afghanistan, and now in Nigeria.  Yet Dr. Rowan Williams, Archbishop of Canterbury, is on record as saying that the adoption of certain aspects of Sharia law in the UK “seems unavoidable”.  He has given up the fight against Islamic extremism. Now he is joined by the head of the Catholic Church in England and Wales who is oblivious to the real threat to his Church.

The Archbishops of two major English Churches are leading their flocks to the acceptance of a world of sharia and Islamism.

Only a blind man could not see a future bloody demise for Christians in the modern day Coliseum of radical Islamic fundamentalism.

How the Jews steal Christmas: Ugly Guardian story evokes Jesus as an “oppressed” Palestinian

As NGO Monitor noted about the above cartoon, a Christmas card distributed by the NGO War on Want:

This Christmas card shows Joseph and a heavily pregnant Mary encountering a Bethlehem that is “effectively sealed off from the outside world by Israel’s Separation Wall” and “Mary and Joseph being frisked on their way to find an Inn for the night.” Linking the suffering of Palestinians with that of Jesus and Bethlehem is a common strategy for emphasizing accusations of Israeli brutality.

Such an insidious narrative, which uses Christmas as a means to demonize the Jewish state – including the conflation of Jesus with the Palestinians – is not uncommon among the British NGOs most hostile to Israel such as War on Want,  Amos Trust, and Pax Christi, and other NGOs, such as Sabeel and Adalah-NY.

A recent essay - to which NGO Monitor President Gerald Steinberg contributed – noted:

UK-based Amos Trust is advertising its annual Bethlehem Pack, “a resource…which refers to Christian symbols in order to conflate the suffering of Jesus with the experience of Palestinians, explaining “If Jesus was born today in Bethlehem, the Wise Men would spend several hours queuing to enter the town” and “If Jesus was born today in Bethlehem, much of the shepherds’ fields would have been confiscated for illegal Israeli settlements.”

As the author of the essay observed, “These theological references are direct successors to millennia of Christian anti-Semitic campaigns.”

Such tropes are also employed by the Guardian’s Phoebe Greenwood.

Here is the headline of her Dec. 22 report:

Here’s the Guardian photo and caption which accompanied Greenwood’s report – evoking Jesus Christ, the ‘Good Shepherd’ (John, verses 11-13), which is among the most common symbolic representations of Christ found in Early Christian art:

Greenwood’s tale leaves little to the imagination, beginning thusly:

If Joseph and Mary were making their way to Bethlehem today, the Christmas story would be a little different, says Father Ibrahim Shomali, a parish priest in the town. The couple would struggle to get into the city, let alone find a hotel room.

“If Jesus were to come this year, Bethlehem would be closed,” says the priest of Bethlehem’s Beit Jala parish. “He would either have to be born at a checkpoint or at the separation wall. Mary and Joseph would have needed Israeli permission – or to have been tourists.

However, as I pointed out in a previous post, the ONLY place in the Middle East where the Christian population has grown since the end of WWII is Israel, and the flight of Christians from Palestinian controlled areas, such as Bethlehem, is primarily the result of persecution by the majority Muslim population.

Today, Christians make up just 1% of the population of the Palestinian territories. In 1920, they represented 10%.  And, in Bethlehem in particular, not only has the number of Christians continued to dwindle, but Bethlehem and its surroundings also recently has become hotbeds for Hamas and Islamic Jihad supporters and members.

Undeterred, Greenwood continues:

Dr Jad Isaac, an expert in Bethlehem’s demographics and a consultant to the Palestinian president, Mahmoud Abbas, says aside from the physical restrictions on development, Bethlehem’s economy is being strangled by the loss of land and restrictions on Palestinian movement. [Emphasis mine]

However, as Reuters reported (consistent with a recent Post by Akus)

With millions of tourists expected in the West Bank town of Bethlehem during Christmas, local merchants and tourism officials say they are enjoying an economic boom. Palestinian minister of tourism, Kholod Daibes, predicted that two million tourists will visit the city by the end of 2011.

We expect to attract greater numbers who are making a special visit so there will be more who stay in the Palestinian hotels, especially when the number of rooms and facilities is increasing,” she said. Daibes said that despite the Arab Spring revolutions in the region, which is expected to impact on tourist numbers, the outlook is still better than in previous years.

Greenwood concludes:

“The little town of Bethlehem? It will soon be the little ghetto surrounded in all directions by Israeli settlements,” he predicts. “We’ve already passed the stage where Bethlehem can be saved. Frankly, that’s why I don’t celebrate Christmas any more.”

In the media there are, to be sure, small lies, big lies and moral obscenities.

The small lie in Greenwood’s tale pertains to her suggestion that Bethlehem is being economically strangled by Israeli policy.

The big lie is that Israeli Jews are, in any way, oppressing Christians.

The morally obscene charge is that, if Christ, Mary and Joseph were all alive today, they’d be persecuted by the Jewish state.

The indisputable fact, however, is that Israel remains the sole nation in the Middle East where Christians thrive and worship freely.

Is this even debatable?