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.)

graph

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

Not reported by the Guardian: The “plot to celebrate Christmas” in Saudi Arabia

The following story about an incident in Saudi Arabia, published in Alakhbar, reads as satire, but is all too real, and represents and interesting postscript to our recent critique of Harriet Sherwood’s tall tale about Christmas in Bethlehem , which conjured fanciful images of Christians under siege in the Holy Land.

20110531_SaudiArabiaMap

Here are excerpts from the Alakhbar piece:

“Saudi religious police stormed a house in the Saudi Arabian province of al-Jouf, detaining more than 41 guests for “plotting to celebrate Christmas,” a statement from the police branch released Wednesday night said.

The host of the alleged Christmas gathering is reported to be an Asian diplomat whose guests included 41 Christians, as well as two Saudi Arabian and Egyptian Muslims.

The kingdom, which only recognizes Islamic faith and practice, has in the past banned public Christmas celebrations, but is ambiguous about festivities staged in private quarters.

member of the Higher Council of Islamic scholars in Saudi Arabia, Sheikh Mohammed al-Othaimin recently prohibited sending holiday wishes to “heretics” on Christmas or other religious Christian holidays.”

As Christians throughout Israel were freely celebrating the birth of Christ, in the neighboring state of Saudi Arabia dozens were detained for ‘conspiring’ to celebrate the holiday.

Meanwhile, on the Guardian’s Saudi Arabia page, there was nothing on the crackdown against Christianity.

saudi

While Harriet Sherwood and her team of journalistic and polemical investigators continue to conduct a never-ending moral DNA analysis of the Jewish state for any trace amounts of racism or discrimination, the abominable treatment of religious minorities in the non-Jewish Middle East avoids serious scrutiny.

While we continue to report on the Guardian’s bias against the only Jewish state in the region, it’s impossible to properly contextualize such skewed coverage without noting the regional stories they don’t report.  

Such expansive moral blind spots, as much as any other dynamic, continue to define the ideological space occupied by the Guardian Left.   

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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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

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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]

Guardian contributor David Wearing’s Twitter pic: The Israeli Grinch who steals Christmas

In a post on Dec. 23 titled “How the Jews steal Christmas: Ugly Guardian story evokes Jesus as an oppressed Palestinian“, I commented on Phoebe Greenwood’s story titled “If Jesus were to come this year, Bethlehem would be closed“, which included this quote:

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.

Greenwood’s story on the Jewish Grinch which stole Christmas ended thusly:

“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.”

The following cartoon – certainly in the spirit of Greenwood’s report – was posted on the Twitter page of  ‘Comment is Free’ commentator David Wearing on Christmas day:

As NGO Monitor (NGOM) noted about the cartoon Wearing posted (which illustrated 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.

NGOM president Gerald Steinberg added:

Linking the suffering of Palestinians to Christian themes revives traditional and deep-seated antisemitic theology…

As I observed in my previous post, the broader narrative advanced by Greenwood (and implied by Wearing’s Twitter pic) that Israel is inhospitable to Christians is belied by the fact that the only place in the Middle East where the Christian population has grown since the end of WWII is Israel.

But, of course, for Guardian contributors such as Wearing – who previously complained of a “huge propaganda campaign whitewashing Israeli crimes” – such dry, empirical data demonstrating Israel’s regional advantage in the rights afforded to religious minorities is never a barrier to advancing malign narratives about the Jewish state. 

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.

Christmas in Bethlehem, 2011

A guest post by AKUS

Christmas is a time for solemn messages of good will and hope from various important people, and some not so important people who would like to think they are important. Of course, there is always the exception to the rule of expressing good hope and cheer. Frequent readers of the Guardian will be expecting the editors’ usual choice of articles bemoaning the horror of Christmas in Bethlehem in an area controlled by Israel.

For example, in extraordinary fashion tying the Occupy St. Paul’s protests in London with affairs on the West Bank, Giles Fraser got in an early pre-Xmas shot at Israel when he wrote on November 17th, 2011:

Bethlehem is a place of such vast injustice and social deprivation. The Israeli separation barrier has severed the whole town from its traditional sources of social and economic vitality. Farmers can no longer reach their olive trees. Families who live just a few miles apart can no longer visit each other. Graffiti on the vast concrete wall offers a slender message of hope: “Nothing lasts for ever.”

But it seems that for many of the pilgrims to Bethlehem, this complex political reality is something to be passed by on the other side. They have come to find a sacred space that is as protected from politics as the holy is from the unholy.

In typical Guardian style, Fraser provides no context that might explain Israel’s position vis-à-vis his complaints. There is no mention of the need for a separation barrier to stop terrorists shooting at Israelis, no recollection of the occupation of the Church of the Nativity by terrorists in 2002, no mention of the decline in the Christian population as Moslems have made it harder for Christians to remain in Bethlehem.

There is no contrast with the growing Christian populations inside Israel in the Old City of Jerusalem, Nazareth and other, smaller, towns and villages in the Galilee, thriving as free citizens of a democratic state that respects all religions.

In fact, a report in the Church of England newspaper stated:

“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”.

The true “vast injustice” that is being perpetrated in Bethlehem is the way Christians are being forced out by extremists in the local Moslem majority, as in so many other areas in the Middle East.

Fraser of course makes no mention of Bethlehem’s increasing prosperity and the peaceful atmosphere that has returned to Bethlehem (and allowed him to sit there penning his diatribe) after Israel decided to keep the terrorists out. So to even things up I thought it might be a good idea to show the reality by posting this message from the Israeli Civil Administration.

Contrary to the Guardian’s gloomy view of events in the area, 1,500,000 visitors are expected to have visited Bethlehem this year, up from a not insignificant 1.1 million the year before, of whom 90,000 visited this tiny town during the Xmas period last year. During Xmas alone $250 million tourist dollars flow into this town of 22,000 residents. The military authorities and Christian religious leaders met to coordinate their activities to ensure that things go as smoothly as possible. Shopkeepers report that business is booming.

So – to our readers celebrating Christmas, Merry Christmas and Happy New Year. I hope you enjoy seeing some of the scenes here from Bethlehem and Jerusalem, and don’t believe everything you read in the Guardian!

(Postscript- after this was written, as sure as night follows day, as Adam Levick noted, the Guardian pulled an article from its archives that was published 16 years ago to condemn Israel – From the archive, 22 December 1995: Big day in little town of Bethlehem . To call this a cheap shot would be an understatement).

(Post-postscript – after the postscript was written, the Guardian, it turns out, was turning up the pace of its crocodile tears at its annual Bethlehem hate-fest. This year, they have this piece from the basement, and a new one by someone who seems to be the Guardian’s attempt to replace the empirically challenged Harriet Sherwood as a commentator on Israeli-Palestinian affairs, Phoebe Greenwood – http://www.guardian.co.uk/world/2011/dec/22/jesus-the-year-bethlehem-closed )

(A full post on Greenwood’s latest will appear shortly)

Palestinian persecution of Christians: Postscript to ’95 Guardian story on Israeli withdrawal from Bethlehem

A Guardian Archive story (which they republished today) from 1995, titled “Big day in the little town of Bethlehem” begins with the following celebratory passage:

There will be no star over Bethlehem this Christmas. The Israeli flag, which has flown over Manger Square for 28 years, was lowered yesterday for the last time, as the town was handed over to the Palestinian self-rule authority.

As the last small contingent of paramilitary forces moved out, Manger Square was filled with wildly celebrating crowds

 On the outside a thick crust of spectators responded gleefully to every [sign of Israeli withdrawal]

Jewish withdrawal from Christian Bethlehem: What’s there not to love?

Brown continues:

Last year the mayor of Bethlehem threatened to cancel Christmas because the Israelis would not let him fly one small Palestinian flag from the town hall. Now, the hall and most neighbouring buildings are all but obliterated by the national colours.

Yes, the Jews who almost stole Christmas.

Finally, Brown acknowledges Christian fears of Muslim rule:

There has been speculation that the coming of the PLO to Bethlehem will speed the exodus of Christians from the West Bank. But there was little sign of rivalry yesterday. Samir Sharer, one local Christian, said he was convinced that this year’s Christmas would be joyful. “Everything will be OK…”

As we can be assured that a follow-up report by the Guardian won’t be forthcoming, here are the sad demographic facts of Christian life under Palestinian/ Muslim rule.

Due primarily to religious persecution, the Christian population in the Palestinian Territories has dropped dramatically.

For instance, the persecution of Christians in Bethlehem has caused the population to slump to 7,500 from 20,000 in 1995, the year the IDF left the city. (Since Israel’s withdrawal Bethlehem and its surroundings also became hotbeds for Hamas and Islamic Jihad supporters and members.)

Today, Christians make up just 1% of the mainly Muslim population of the Palestinian territories, down from around 10% in 1948.

Inversely, the Christian population in Israel proper has risen from 34,000 in 1948 to over 150,000 today.

That the only growing Christian population in the entire Middle East exists in the sole country in which Islam does not prevail 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 only Jewish state the Guardian will never report.

“Bah!” said the Guardian’s Ana Carbajosa, “Humbug!”

“Christmas a humbug, uncle!” said Scrooge’s nephew. “You don’t mean that, I am sure?”

“I do,” said Scrooge. “Merry Christmas! What right have you to be merry? What reason have you to be merry? You’re poor enough.”

(‘A Christmas Carol’ – Charles Dickens, 1843)

With Harriet Sherwood apparently otherwise engaged, the Guardian’s coverage of Israel during the Christian festive season has been placed in the hands of Ana Carbajosa. Not quite full of the spirit of seasonal goodwill, Carbajosa has so far managed to make flimsy analogies on CiF between biblical shepherds and contemporary sheep farmers and in the Boxing Day edition of the Observer, profile the tourist industry in Bethlehem.

In order for Guardian readers to be able to enjoy their mince pies and brandy butter with a clear conscience, secure in the knowledge that despite their own comforts, they remain befittingly concerned about the lot of others less fortunate than themselves, Carbajosa makes sure that her readers know all about various Palestinian misfortunes, and of course, who is to blame for them. Her answer to the question of culpability is as inevitable as the annual re-runs of sugary Hollywood blockbusters on Christmas afternoon TV.

Of course more than at any other time of the year Christmas is a season of tradition. People crave the known and the familiar – no matter how predictable – and that includes over-cooked Brussel sprouts and Auntie Hilda having a bit too much Irish Cream liqueur and snoring in front of something starring Julia Roberts or Hugh Grant.  Even so, how refreshing it would have been if Carbajosa had forgone the usual stereotypes and clichés and actually tried to inform her readers as to why tourism to Bethlehem took a bit of a nose dive in recent years.

“But not so long ago Bethlehem was a city under curfew, where only Israeli soldiers and armed Palestinian militants dared take to the streets. Where only humanitarian workers and the most committed pilgrims had the courage to venture.”

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