Bethlehem is one of the most important social, cultural, and economic hubs in Palestinian life. Its status as the birthplace of Jesus makes it a place of fundamental importance in Christian narratives whilst Jesus’ prominence as a prophet in Islam means Bethlehem is also significant to Muslims. It is the setting for the story of Ruth and Boaz, making it significant to Judaism too. The city has thus been the subject of many pilgrimages, naturally becoming an economic center as people came to worship throughout history. Predating both Christianity and Islam, archaeologists estimate that Bethlehem was inhabited since at least the Canaanite period. The rich history of Bethlehem and ancient Star Street, in particular, can be seen in the varied architectural structures including Ottoman designs (1515–1917) and earlier influences from the Roman, Byzantine, and Crusader eras- Star Street is listed as a UNESCO world heritage site and is one of Bethlehem’s oldest commercial streets. The social, cultural, and economic richness continues to be impacted by Israel’s prolonged military occupation.
Work began on the separation barrier in 2002 during the second intifada, officially designed to stop the infiltration of suicide bombers from the West Bank into Israel. What matters is that this barrier is clearly not constructed purely for ‘security concerns’, that oft-cited excuse to carry out oppressive policies that would be otherwise impossible to justify. According to the Israeli advocacy group B’tselem,
‘‘once again Israel has made cynical use of security claims to justify grave human rights violations in the Occupied Territories…Among other things the determination of the route of the barrier was based on political considerations, the attempt to leave the settlements to the West of the barrier, and protection of access routes for religious sites — none of which are at all related to military considerations. This situation is likely to render the entire separation barrier project illegal according to international law.”
The wall has been used to take large areas of Palestinian land and is often termed the ‘Apartheid Wall’, referencing the way that it annexes much Palestinian land to Israel and fails to run along the 1949 ‘Green Line’. It separates many Palestinians from their land, leaving it open to settlers or the Israeli state. At times cutting 19km into the West Bank (annexing Israeli settlements such as Har Homa and Qarne Shomron to Israel), it is a land grab. In 2004 the International Court of Justice issued an advisory ruling stating that the barrier is illegal in a statement:
“observing that 80 percent of Israeli settlers in the occupied Palestinian territory now live between the barrier and the so-called Green Line marking the 1949 boundary of Israel”
In essence, Israel is creating ‘facts on the ground’ using the separation barrier. The then Secretary-General of the United Nations Ban Ki Moon issued a statement expressing concern about the route and impact of the wall on Palestinians.
‘‘The Secretary-General is deeply disturbed by the Government of Israel’s decisions to proceed with the construction of the separation wall deep in the West Bank and to build 600 new housing units in West Bank settlements. In keeping with the 26 September statement of the Quartet, he views both the security wall and settlements in the West Bank built on Palestinian land as serious obstacles to the achievement of a two-State solution.”
The modern city of Bethlehem is located 10 kilometers to the south of Jerusalem. It has a population of more than 220,000 people with 20,000 living in three refugee camps (Dheisha, Aida, and Azzeh camps). Israeli policies (specifically concerning the wall) affect Bethlehem as much as any other part of the West Bank.
Farmers face obstacles accessing their crops at crucial harvesting times due to Israeli policies specifically designed to make crossing difficult during these seasonal periods. This is at a time when their families are dependent upon money earned from selling this product. The limitation of permits to access Jerusalem has negatively affected the ability of Palestinians to earn higher salaries in Israel and restrictions on the flow of goods from Bethlehem into Jerusalem places restrictions on the maximum economic growth achievable for Bethlehemites
According to the Palestinian Central Bureau of Statistics, ‘The highest unemployment rates in the West Bank governorates was in Bethlehem with 19.4%.’ The fact that Bethlehem is not realizing its economic potential is linked to Israeli land restrictions, exacerbated by the presence of the wall. According to a report by the UN Committee on the Exercise of the Inalienable Rights of the Palestinian People,
“Israeli policies in the Occupied Palestinian Territory imposed a ‘huge price tag’ on the Palestinian economy by preventing Palestinians from accessing much of their land and exploiting most of their natural resources while isolating them from global markets and fragmenting their territory into small, poorly connected ‘cantons’ ’’
The economic restrictions placed upon Bethlehem by the wall and other Israeli measures have caused real suffering amongst the local population. This is a place of enormous potential and could be a real hub of commerce and tourism if it were allowed to develop without the sanctions placed on it by the Israeli state. The UN estimates that
“Had the Palestinians not been subjected to the occupation, their economy would have been almost doubled its size today.”
Israel’s ability to control the economy of Palestinian cities is but one method among many aimed at perpetuating and prolonging the occupation by keeping the Palestinians weak.
As stated earlier in this article, Star Street was once a central vein of commerce and played an important role in the local economy. The Separation Barrier has had a devastating impact on the number of tourists coming to visit Bethlehem and thus its economic well being; since 2002, 98 shops have closed down on Star Street. Bet Lahem Live is a Holy Land Trust initiative founded in 2012, aiming to bring life back to Star Street. It is a four-day-long festival that runs annually at the beginning of August. Of the 98 closed shops since 2002, 30% re-open each year for the duration of the festival.
It is an opportunity for local businesses to have unprecedented access to international visitors in one place. There are many goals of the festival- resisting the occupation, promoting women’s empowerment, and celebrating a Palestinian identity but in economic terms, it is a godsend to Bethlehemites. Many have shops far out of the center that would never usually be exposed to such a high number of visitors looking to buy souvenirs or traditional Palestinian crafts. Holy Land Trust also provides assistance to those struggling to raise the necessary funds for a stall during the festival. The positive experience of the four-day event often encourages entrepreneurs to stay open after the festival- around 5% of the original number of shops annually.
The success we’ve had on revitalizing the historical area of Star Street has allowed us to shift focus on the impact of Israel’s Apartheid Wall and the way it has fragmented Palestinian culture, history, and identity. This year’s Bet Lahem is a move towards a greater sense of unity between Palestinians living in different ethnically enforced enclaves across the Holy Land as well as Palestinians living the diaspora.
The festival relies on visitors coming from abroad to support the local economy and bring back the message of peace and justice that it promotes. We depend as much on the support of someone taking the plunge and deciding to come for the first time as on those staying for Bet Lahem Live having come in the past. So please, consider paying a visit to Bet Lahem Live this year. You would be most welcome.
Elias Deis - Executive Director
Holy Land Trust’s E.D., Elias Deis has worked for over a decade at Holy Land Trust. He was formally the Travel & Encounter Program Director and serves on the Beit Sahour City Council.