Manger Square in Bethlehem, just a few days before Christmas, tingles a little. The coffee sellers in their pearly jackets and the falafel fryers in the corner are doing business as usual; kids and postcard sellers pester the odd stray foreigner for a shekel; and old Yassir down by the Basilica holds out to me his beads for sale. "The tourists," he almost sobs, "they don’t come". But they will: just for a day or two, just this one time of the year, Bethlehem will be a little of what it used to be before the intifadah, before the Israelis sent the town into economic meltdown by coralling the townsfolk of Jesus’s birth behind a thirty-foot concrete wall. In a few days there will be a few thousand here, and for a brief moment it will be just like the old times when Bethlehem received 50,000 visitors a year, when Christians and Muslims alike could make a living from the influx, before the time when the pilgrim hotels and the olive-wood souvenir shops stood empty, like a question mark, like Yassir’s complaint.
Men are climbing palm trees to put up gaudy lights, courtesy of Hamas, which has donated a few thousand precious shekels it doesn’t have – Hamas has carried out a terrorist attack on its own foot by refusing to recognise Israel, while the Israelis are witholding $60m tax credits a month to show they don’t recognise Hamas - to demonstrate that they are Muslims who care about Christmas too. And Muslims do care, certainly in Bethlehem. This is everyone’s party. "Happy Christmas," says Mohammed, who by popular repute sells the best falafels in the square, as he drops another chick-pea ball into a deep pan of fat, where it floats, sizzling.
The general image of Bethlehem is one of violence; pilgrims stay away because they are scared. The truth is the opposite...
"Muslim, Christian, we are all the same", is Bethlehem’s constant refrain – one of which the baby born over there in the cave under the great looming Basilica would surely approve.
The Israelis have announced, as they do each year, that pilgrims will have free passage from Jerusalem to Bethlehem at Christmas. What they mean is that foreigners can pass swiftly through the checkpoint between the holy cities on Christmas Eve. Palestinian Christians on the West Bank can only go up to Jerusalem with a special permit, given on a quota basis, which restricts visits to just a few hours. But this year, unusually, they have said any Christian in Bethlehem can have a 00 permit - which means they can stay over, if they want, during December. These are glad tidings for the families divided by the wall. But the permits are a bureaucratic nightmare to apply for, and mean a long visit to an Israeli army checkpoint where they will be made to wait for hours and are poked by soldiers with guns. And because they haven’t publicised the fact, there aren’t many Christians who will hear about it in time. And welcome as it is, the lifting of the blockade doesn’t do anything to quell the bitterness here that for the rest of the year the town is an open prison. And then, what about the Muslims?
These little efforts for the sake of the beleagured Christians of Bethlehem may have something to do with the imminent arrival here of UK church leaders, including my old boss, Cardinal Cormac Murphy-O’Connor. Alarmed by the exodus of Christians from the town – they are just 15 per cent of the population now, if you include Beit Jalah and Beit Sahour, and down to less than half in the old city, which not along ago was almost entirely Christian - the Cardinal gave out a blistering homily last Christmas, said the little town of Christ’s birth was being cut off from the world, prayed that "the eyes and the hearts of the world be opened to what is happening there" and asked that Bethlehem again become what it is meant to be: a free and open city, a city that belongs to all of humanity. It was the main story on the BBC on Christmas Day, and got a fair airing in the papers too; and for the next three weeks I sat in his public affairs office hitting back at angry emails from Jewish networks accusing him of antisemitism, ignorance and (in some, just for good measure) paedophilia.
The arguments were the same – and even used the same phrases: that the wall was the only way of protecting Israelis from terrorism, that the Christians were being driven out by Islamic extremists, that Israeli security was a matter for the Israelis alone, and perhaps the Cardinal should stick to matters he knows something about.
It was clear we had touched a nerve.
Having exhorted Christians to visit Bethlehem, the Cardinal reckoned he should set an example this Christmas. I stopped working for the Cardinal in July, since when the trip has evolved into an ecumenical junket of four church leaders and another 13 minders. In addition to His Eminence, the pilgrimage now includes the Archbishop of Canterbury, Dr Rowan Williams, the moderator of the free churches (roughly the Baptists and the Methodists), and the even the Armenian patriarch of Great Britain. You would be hard pressed to find a Baptist or a Methodist in Bethlehem, but they are important in Britain – hence the presence of Revd. David Coffey, who is president of Churches Together in England, the main ecumenical body. With Bishop Nathan Hovhannisian it’s the other way round: Armenians in Britain are pretty thin on the ground, but out here they are one of big Christian players, along with the Greeks and the Catholics.
I’m here because I’ve grown fond of a plucky little campaign organisation, called Open Bethlehem, whose director, Leila Sansour, has asked me to come and help with handling the press for the visit.
OB was set up in 2005 by members of the Christian middle class to issue an SOS for the town. They wanted to highlight the town’s plight, and to waken the international community to the slow, relentless strangulation of the town. Rather than leave to seek livelihoods abroad – as 500 families have done since 2000 – they have decided to stay to rescue their city.
They have had their lands taken away by the Israelis in the name of security; they have watched the wall go up, condemning their educated, cosmopolitan culture; and they have stood by as the flow of pilgrims has narrowed to a trickle, putting the economy into nosedive. But rather than rail against the wall – or engage in the kind of Arab rhetoric which speaks only of powerlessness – their strategy has been to encourage people to come here and see for themselves. That means reassuring them it is not dangerous (which it isn’t: the last recorded incident against a tourist was in the 1970s), and inviting them to stay over, meet its people, and to learn something of what it is like here now for the people who live under the shadow of the wall. They know that once people see that grey concrete abomination for themselves - once they pass through the humilating cattle-pen that is the checkpoint - they will find a friendly, gentle people on the other side, and their eyes will be opened. And they will wonder, as everyone does who comes here, how it is that the international community stands idle while the most famous town on earth is reduced to squalor and destitution behind a thirty-foot solid wall bristling with cameras and cameras, in violation of international law.
'If the wall stays Bethlehem ceases to be a Christian town.'
OB’s is a counter-scapegoating strategy: the Israelis have painted the Bethlehemites as terrorists and try to claim that Christians are leaving not because the town is dying on its feet but because of Islamic extremism. The general image is one of violence; pilgrims stay away because they are scared. The truth is the opposite: pilgrims in Bethlehem discover a gentle, sleepy, ramshackle place, which loves to mollycoddle its visitors, enveloping them in Arabic hospitality and charm -- as I discovered when I stayed here for six days back in June.
After just a year of campaigning from their offices in Manger Square, as well as Washington and London, Leila, her brother Maxim, her cousin Carol and others in their small team have managed to put Bethlehem on the international agenda: it was at their urging that the Cardinal decided to speak out last year, and it is indirectly because of them that the church leaders are coming. And I want to help them.
I am still groggy from the flight, but we need to get the press releases about the surveys out before the church leaders arrive. OB has commissioned two simultaneous polls about Bethlehem – in the town itself, and in the US. We headline it "Americans back Bethlehem – but are not sure where it is", because without doubt the most newsworthy item is that most Americans believe Bethlehem is an Israeli town inhabited by a mixture of Jews and Muslims. Only 15 per cent of Americans realise that it is a Palestinian city with a mixed Christian-Muslim community, lying in the occupied West Bank.
The headline is my idea, but I feel a little guilty for appearing to make fun of American ignorance. This is a complex region, after all. The main point of the survey is that it shows that if Americans knew that the wall divides families, cuts off Jerusalem from Bethlehem, and has led to a land-grab that has paved its way for new Israeli settlements on the West Bank, Americans would oppose it. It is a result that should send shivers down a few spines in Jerusalem: once Israel is perceived as hurting Christians, the US would find it hard to justify being its most solid ally. The Bethlehem survey gives proof of what we anyway know: that Christians are leaving because of the economic implosion, not because of any rise in Islamic extremism. They do not trust Israel to safeguard the town’s Christian heritage, while they are happy with the Palestinian Authority’s respect for it.
The survey also shows that the Israeli strategy of blaming the exodus of Christians on Islam is working well. While the Christians of Bethlehem overwhelmingly (78%) blame the exodus of Christians from the town on Israel’s blockade, Americans are more likely (45.9%) to blame it on Islamic politics and are reluctant (7.4%) to blame Israel. And while four out of ten Americans believe that the wall exists for Israel’s security, more than nine out of ten Bethlehemites believe it is part of a plan by Israel to confiscate Palestinian land.
The mostly Christian families who own the land have received letters saying the land has been requisitioned for security purposes.
"The choice is stark," says Leila in the press release. "Either the wall stays and Bethlehem ceases to be a Christian town. Or Bethlehem retains its Christian population – in which case the wall has to come down. The international community needs to wake up to what is happening and choose."
Our hope is that the survey will be carried along with the news of the church leaders’ arrival in Bethlehem tomorrow – but that depends on whether they will make much news. The most dramatic moment will be when they walk through the checkpoint, although whether the Israelis will let them – our best guess is that they will divert them at the last moment through the less humiliating car entrance – is another matter.
In the evening I go to Jerusalem with Elias, the small and thin owner of the hotel where I am staying, the biggest in Bethlehem. Elias has a special permit from the Israeli tourism ministry, which is hosting a reception for the church leaders as they arrive. The ministry wants to show Palestinian hoteliers and Israeli tourism officials happily side by side, and Elias knows it’s all for show. But his business depends on retaining good relations with the ministry and so, he explains, "what can I do? I have to go."
We are stopped, of course, and our documents checked, but otherwise it’s an easy 10-mile ride – Israeli soldiers do not argue with government invitations. Even so, we are late arriving at the Notre Dame hotel; but so, it turns out, are the church leaders, who were kept waiting for two hours on the tarmac at London airport. There is time to talk to Catholic bagpipe-playing scouts, who have been shivering for a few hours outside; and to the British consul, who is tired from days travelling with our prime minister, Tony Blair, round Israel and the West Bank. Blair wants a peace deal, but he’s a spent cartridge now. The consul explains how British aid saves the very poor on the West Bank from destitution, "something for which," he complains, "we get very little credit."
Then the bus pulls up, and cassocks emerge in a jumble of suitcases and advisers. The Revd. Anthony Ball, one of the Archbishop of Canterbury’s team of five, is clearly trying to be in charge: he runs back and forth, arms flaying, while the four church leaders make a rather more dignified entrance. They are late for dinner with the Greek patriarch, it turns out, so there is no time for the man from the tourist ministry to give his powerpoint presentation. Instead, Dr Williams is dispatched to exchange a few words.
He listens as Raphael Ben-Hur explains how anxious Israel is to encourage pilgrimages to the Holy Land, to help the Christians in their difficult plight etc. etc., while Dr Williams nods to show that he has grasped the points. Then Zahi Khouri, spokesman for the Bethlehem hoteliers present, begins his speech just as Canterbury’s advisers start sliding into the room and not so discreetly taping their watches. But Dr Williams continues to listen, patiently, as Khouri explains the disastrous impact the wall and the restrictions have had on Bethlehem. It is a good account, graphic and succint, made more poignant by the knowledge – which he does not share – that Khouri is one of a consortium of Palestinian businessmen who own the astonishing (and almost always empty) five-star Al-Jacir Palace in Bethlehem, part of the Inter-Continental chain. The hotel was built at a time of optimism, before the intifadah and the Israelis’ response killed off mass pilgrimages, when it was hoped that Bethlehem could become a peaceful base for visits to Jerusalem. Now is stands idle, the most luxurious place in the town from which to view the wall. It is a white elephant for sure, but by remaining open manages to be a defiant statement too.
Without its Christians, Bethlehem would be cast off into the Islamic Arab world, just another ramshackle town on the West Bank.
Dr Williams speaks briefly. "Everything you both say finds a resonance in our hearts," he says in that carefully-modulated deep voice which is part now of the British national furniture. "We are here to show that Bethlehem should be open, and to open minds and hearts to Bethlehem."
And with that they are off, leaving Khouri and Ben-Hur to have one of those rows in English (their common language) which are never far away when Israelis and Palestinians meet.
"You know Rafi, I’ve always said that Jerusalem and Bethlehem are Siamese cities – they cannot be severed by a wall," says Khouri, who adds that Jews should be able to visit the place of birth of Jesus, "who was also a Jew", and that Christians and Muslims should be able to honour the tomb of Rachel – which is in Bethlehem, but severed from the town by the wall to enable Jewish settlers to visit it without coming into contact with Palestinians.
"Zahi, you know that we all want that wall to come down," Ben-Hur replies, with an energetic shrug. "But first the walls in peoples’ hearts have to come down."
It is a standard Israeli argument, which always meets the same response.
"But Rafi," Khouri objects. "How do you expect the walls in peoples’ hearts to come down, if they are not allowed to meet?"
The next morning I visit the Basilica of the Nativity for prayer. For the lone pilgrim, there are advantages to the world’s desertion of Bethlehem; there are no camera-wielding hordes as there are in Jerusalem. In the Greek Orthodox part is the cave where Mary gave birth, at a spot marked by a silver star in the ground; it was the little cave where the animals were kept, where she went, no doubt, to get some privacy as the labour pains grew intense. The larger cave next door, which is Catholic-controlled, can only be reached through the adjoining St Catherine’s church. The door between the two caves is only opened at Christmas.
I touch the star, and pray for a few moments, before going into the grottoes where Joseph was warned in a dream to flee Herod and later St Jerome spent decades on the first Latin translation of the Bible. It is peaceful here, and warm from centuries of prayer, and it all speaks of some magnificent news about to break: I have this odd image of newsrooms where journalists and their editors are waiting on an historic announcement, pacing up and down as they mutter, O come thou rod of Jesse, come.
Crossing the square to Open Bethlehem’s smart new office – rented from the Latin Patriarchate, which is a supporter – I am impatient with the olive-wood sellers. I’m going to be here for a week, I say – look, working over there. Don’t take me for a tourist, in other words. But immediately I feel bad. I am treating them as one does the winoes in the part of London where I live, whose drunken, self-pitying imprecations are part of the clatter of life. But these people are a proud pastoralists, labourers who live from their skills and their crafts; they have children to feed, and they are only flogging olive-wood camels because they are reduced to this by the seizure of the land and the collapse of the local economy. I turn back and, indeed, Aziz has a tale of woe, and I can easily part with 20 shekels and you can’t really have too many olive-wood camels.
'If you resist non-violently you preserve the moral ground. You keep your dignity, your humanity. Not even Israel can take that away.'
In the office we google the survey and found it has hit a good many sites, mainly in the US, even making it into some newspapers. Over at Bethlehem University I take part in a press conference, mostly in Arabic, to announce the survey’s results. Leila gives a presentation on OB’s main messages: that the wall deprives Bethlehem of its best agricultural land, takes from the town its major landmarks, separates it from its lifeline, Jerusalem, and has turned the most renowned town in the world into a walled-in ghetto.
Brother Jack, one of the de la Salle brothers who runs the West Bank’s only Christian university (where 70 per cent of the students are Muslim, and 20 per cent come from Jerusalem), wants to know how we can communicate these realities to Americans. For Americans, he says, a wall is not necessarily a bad thing; a wall defines a border. I suggest that we take over the town of Bethlehem, Pennsylvania, and put around it a 30-foot wall, and tell the residents that they need to apply for permits to work in their offices out of town. Brother Jack thinks that’s a splendid idea, but we both know that the answer to his question is: with enormous difficulty.
Back in Manger Square we hear there has been a holdup and the church leaders will not be here until 3. The BBC and Reuters have set up in the square, bless them, and Leila does interviews in which she plugs the survey’s headlines. There is time to have a row with a journalist whose newspaper has just done a big article on how Christians are being forced to leave Bethlehem because of Muslim extremism. The journalist disowns the piece – "she was clearly sent out to the story her editor asked her for" – but then turns aggressive, saying everyone has a different party line, even the church leaders, and that’s why he talks to "ordinary people". This way, he says, each year he can come down from Jerusalem and do a different Bethlehem story, to keep his editor interested. There is no overall truth, he suggests, just lots of people’s stories. But does he accept the overall truth that people are leaving because of the town’s economic collapse? He shifts about a bit, and just says again, "there are lots of party lines".
Then news comes that the church leaders are making their way down Star St, following the route thought to be the one taken by Mary and Joseph and their donkey and their precious cargo, when God in the womb was jig-jogged towards history’s great breakthrough amid a gentle patter of hooves on stone.
Sure enough, the Israelis have diverted the leaders at the last moment from the pedestrian checkpoint, which means they never got to go through the turnstiles and the document checks and the steel pens. "They did it so swiftly and so expertly we didn’t have a chance," Alex, the Cardinal’s press man, explains to me, as he comes ahead of the group. It also meant – he said – that the camera crews had to rush from one place to another, which meant that a lot never got pictures.
They arrive amidst a scrum of media, walking purposefully down the white-stone narrow path. The Cardinal in scarlet-sashed habito piano, looming above the others, along with Dr Williams, with bushy beard and and pectoral cross, and Bishop Hovhannisian under a conical black hat, rather leave the Rev. Coffey looking naked in his simple clericals. They are taken into the International Peace Centre for speeches, but the minders are insistent on keeping out TV cameras. They have their own camera crew, it turns out, which will be making a programme about the visit – no doubt with plenty of controlled messages – to be broadcast long after anyone is still interested. eHeal
This is doubly sad, because inside Dr Williams gives a memorable speech in response to the mayor of Bethlehem, who tells them: "Your presence is challenging this ugly wall." Dr Williams, still visibly shaken by what he had seen, says the wall is "a sign of all that is wrong in the human heart", a symbol of "the terrible fear of the other, of the stranger, which keeps us all in one kind of prison or another", from which God 2,000 years ago came to release people.
"We are here to say to the people of Bethlehem that they are not forgotten. We are here to say: what affects you affects us. We are here to say, your suffering is our suffering too, in prayers and in thought and in hope."
Citing an Advent hymn which sings of "Jesus Christ, the one who comes the prison bars to break", Dr Williams says it was the church leaders’ "prayer and our hope for all of you that the prison of poverty and disadvantage, the prison of fear and anxiety, will alike be broken."
He adds that the church leaders had come because the Incarnation "assures us that these prisons could be broken, broken by the act of God in whose sight all are equally precious – Palestinian, Israeli, Jewish, Christian and Muslim; and for whom all lives are so equally precious that the death of one is affront to all."
After receiving citizenship certificates from the Mayor, the church leaders make their way to the Basilica, stopping for a prayer amid a scrum of cameras. Once they reach the little Door of Humility, the Revd. Anthony Ball tries to prevent the mostly local camera crews from entering. A man pushes through, saying something in Arabic; Ball pushes him back, and the two men wrestle for a heart-stopping few moments, while the cameramen shout, "This is our church. You can’t stop us entering here." The man whom the Archbishop of Canterbury’s adviser had been wrestling turns out to be a plainclothes policeman.
Inside, I joke with the Guardian’s correspondent that the Bethlehemites, who have spent centuries dealing with foreign occupiers seeking to control access to their church, can now add the Church of England to their list.
The next day I visit Carol, who was working for Open Bethlehem when I was here in July and now works at Bethlehem University, which was founded by Leila’s father and where OB had its offices until the summer.
She tells me about the morning’s visit by the church leaders, how the students had presented them with various gifts, including a piece of stone from a house once occupied by a student’s family, now demolished by the Israelis She says the leaders all passed the gifts over to their advisers to carry, but Dr Williams kept the stone, clutching it throughout the visit. I can guess that that stone will make it into his Christmas homily.
We don’t have long, but I want to assure Carol that I will write up what she told me and showed me in July. It would have been the basis for a great article, but there was too much else happening at the time.
What Carol showed me in the summer was Rachel’s Tomb. It’s the story that tells all the other stories, and to understand what is happening to Bethlehem it is worth stopping to have a look at it.
Before 2000, Rachel’s Tomb lay at the end of the main Jerusalem road into Bethlehem, a considerable way inside the town. After the town’s main gate, you came into a bustling street full of pizza parlours, falafel shops and souvenir shops. It was a place where Jews, Muslims and Christians – all of whom had some religious connection to the tomb – would mix and meet.
Under the British mandate, Palestinians controlled the site, but everyone used to come to it – Jews, Muslims, Christians. "Raquel", as they pronounce her in Arabic, is an important figure in the Old Testament, and therefore of significance to Jews and Christians; but there was also a mosque next to the tomb, where holy mullahs were buried, and Muslims came to pay their respects there too. After 1967, however, Muslims were banned from praying at the site, and from burying their dead there. The crescent was removed from the tomb doors. In 1994, at the time of the Oslo agreement, the Israelis began fortifying the tomb, ostensibly to protect a holy site from attacks.
Then the Intifadah broke out, and the Israelis put a checkpoint on the entrance to Bethlehem, which began to kill the businesses in the area. But people assumed that once the threat had lessened, the checkpoint would be removed. But it wasn’t. In 2002, the wall began to be built.
Bethlehemites have watched in astonishment as the Israelis have snaked the wall far into Bethlehem, round Rachels’s Tomb, and out again, completely blocking access. The land inbetween the two arms of the wall has been annexed: the mostly Christian families who own the land have received letters saying the land has been requisitioned for security purposes. In fact, the land has been requisitioned for one purpose only: to extend the Jewish settlement of Gilo as far as the Tomb. Work has already begun: the first fences have gone up. Bethlehemites know what is going to happen, because it has happened already, time and time again. It is how the rich suburban settlements of Har Homa and Gilo and others came to be.
There is a gap in this bit of the wall, which the Israeli buses which bring settlers from Gilo use to reverse. I go through it, knowing that my foreign passport will keep me safe. But it is unnerving, nonetheless, to walk down a narrow strip of land with walls the height of office buildings on either side, with a soldier in a look-out post behind me holding a gun.
The soldier at the entrance of the Tomb looks at my passport and waves me in.
I put on a kipa inside, and enter the room where the tomb is. The room is full of pallid, ultra-Orthodox Jews, nodding in prayer. Some look up, suspicious. The walls are lined with holy books. I do not wish to stay long, because the sensation of walking into an ultra-Orthodox Jewish walled-in holy place carved out of a Christian-Muslim town where Israelis are not allowed to enter is too much for me.
There can never be peace with such arrogance, I find myself muttering.
Outside the tomb I mischievously ask the Israeli soldier what happened to the Muslim burial place. He knows and I know it has been destroyed. But he shrugs, says he knows nothing about it. Yes, I say, here in my guide book (which is not quite truthful: the book is Karen Armstrong’s Jerusalem) it’s mentioned: yes, look here, the mosque of Bilal Bin Rabah, I say knowledgeably, but he shrugs again.
An Australian girl asks to have a look. While she is reading the page, the soldier says, "the bus will go soon." No that’s okay, I say cheerfully, I’m staying in Bethlehem, and jerk my thumb in the direction of the wall.
"You’re staying there?" he sneers. I never expected to see a sneer like that. It was hard to believe he was talking about a town which comes right up to the wall, only feet away.
"It’s a great place," I say, as if swapping travel stories. "Lovely people. Great hospitality. A bit run-down, maybe, but the old city is beautiful. And the food is good too," I add, "as long as you’re big on falafel and humous, which in fact I am."
The Australian girl chips in. "You’re staying on the other side of the wall?" she says, astonished.
"But isn’t it dangerous?"
"Not at all. Much safer than where I live in London. It’s a gentle, peaceful, hospitable place."
She looks confused, her expression wary.
"Why not see for yourself?" I suggest, pointing out the gap in the wall I had come through only a few feet away. "You just go through there."
"But I can’t," she objects. "I’m Jewish."
"It’s only Israelis who aren’t allowed through," I said. "You’re Australian, so no problem. They love visitors here, whatever their religion."
"But they’ll stone me," she insists, and then laughs nervously.
"Nonsense!" I say. "They’ll charm you, and welcome you. There’s a Jewish guy from the US in my hotel – he’s having a great time."
She looks again at the gap in the wall, a little panicked now.
"Go on," I say. "All you have to do is walk through there. Come, I’ll take you."
Her look of terror turns to relief as the bus pulls up to take her back to Jerusalem.
"Maybe another time," she says, handing me back my book, adding: "You know, I hope this wall can come down one day. But sometimes you have to build walls in order to pull them down."
"That’s a monstrous idea," I reply, but I don’t think she hears. As I watch the bus churn the dust in the narrow corridor between the walls I feel a sudden desperate sadness. It was a sort of prank, coming into Rachel’s Tomb, but what I’ve seen has brought me hard up against the reality of Israeli occupation: a land-grab under the guise of security measures.
I walk back out through the gap to join Carol, who has taken refuge in the office of an architect whose window is precisely three feet from the wall. He refuses to move.
"I think I understand now," I say.
Carol is all churned up.
"Watching you go in there," she says. "I just feel so helpless. So powerless. My stomach ….. Please, can we go?"
We do, in her car, south of the centre of Bethlehem to a church called Hortus Clossus which means "closed garden". You can see why: the land here is green and vegetable plots fill the little valley beneath the church. It is downstream from the pools built by Solomon – a sage of the third century before Christ, and another famous citizen of the City of David. It is here, according to legend, that he wrote the Song of Songs. Outside the church it sports chapter 4, verse 12 in Latin:
You are a garden enclosed,
My sister, my bride;
A spring enclosed, a sealed fountain.
Carol and I sit in the sun, smoking cigarettes. She points up to the hill above the gardens, which has been requisitioned by the Israelis to make way for the next section of the wall. First comes a military lookout, surrounded by fence. Then the pylons appear, carrying electricity. The Muslims who own the olive groves here have had their letters announcing that their land is no longer theirs.
Some go to court. Israel’s military policy is brutal, but it has a legal system. The nuns in the convent here won their case, and the wall will not go through their land now, but through the olive groves above it. And that’s the point. A legal appeal can only divert the wall; it cannot stop it. To succeed in diverting the wall means only that it goes onto someone else’s land, pitting neighbour against neighbour.
When Carol and Leila’s family received letters requisitioning their land, they were keen to fight it, but were quickly faced with that dilemma. Rather than create friction among the families of Beit Jala, therefore, they brought a collective action, along with their neighbours. The wall has already gone up on their land, but the case still hasn’t been heard. Carol doesn’t expect to get anywhere: the judge usually concludes that "security considerations" trump the human and property rights of the owner.
"But this isn’t about security," says Carol. "It’s about land. It’s not about the existence of Israel, but the human existence of Palestinians. We are the Red Indians of the United States. They are taking our land, and herding us into ghettoes."
So why do you bother fighting through the courts? I ask.
"Because we want history to record that we are the original owners of that land, and that we fought to keep it. Maybe someday people will find that document and realise what happened. Israel wants us to be fatalistic, to have no will to resist legally and peacefully. They drive us to the point where the only action we appear to be able to take is violence. And then when violence happens, they use it as an excuse to take more of our land.
"But there are other, better ways of fighting than with violence," Carol says passionately. "That’s the way we were brought up. It’s what they always told us, growing up under Israeli occupation. Violence is not our way. It’s because we’re Christian, but it’s also our culture, shared by Muslims. If you resist non-violently you preserve the moral ground. You keep your dignity, your humanity. Not even Israel can take that away. I believe I’m bigger than the occupation. But that doesn’t stop me despairing. It doesn’t stop me being frustrated at having to live in an open prison. But I believe that sooner or later people will wake up to what is happening here – and act. That’s our hope."
We talk about suicide bombers. Israel’s justification for the wall, endlessly repeated, is that it protects innocent lives. In 2004, it says, suicide bombers out of Bethlehem were responsible for more than half of the innocent deaths that year in Jerusalem. And that’s true, as far as it goes. There were indeed two bombers from Bethlehem that year, and they killed a lot of people – ten or eleven each. But that year was an anomaly. Yet the statistic allows Israel to say that in 2006, since the wall and the checkpoints were built, there have been almost no Bethlehem-based suicide bombers. See, says Israel, the wall works.
It is an argument that makes Carol angry. "We are three million people in Palestine. Have we produced even 300 suicide bombers in Palestine? There isn’t a single home unaffected by occupation. If my child had been killed by an Israeli soldier, how would I act?"
Each suicide bombing is an individual story, she says: a story of despair. One woman decides to bomb because she has seen her children gunned down in the street by Israelis. Another because one day the humiliations and the delays at the checkpoints and the economic meltdown tip someone over into a severe depression, from which an act of suicide appears able to release them (and there are ideologues on hand to persuade her that it is for the good of Palestine).
Screw a people down hard enough, in other words, and some will explode.
22 December, Day Two of the church leaders’ visit, and we have put out a press release with Rowan Williams’s strong speech. A few hours’ later it has been picked up ("Williams’s Bethlehem Wall Shock"), and I get calls, from media in London, amazed that in the reports on the church leaders’ arrival no one mentioned this.
I have agreed to two BBC World Service interviews today: one on the radio in Spanish over the phone, the other for World TV in the BBC studio up in Jerusalem. Confusion over time differences means that I don’t have long between them. The telephone in my room doesn’t work, so I end up discussing religious intolerance on the phone behind the desk in Reception. Maybe because I’m speaking in Spanish, Spaniards keep coming over to ask for their keys, and look offended when I wave them away. What with all the noise it’s hard to hear my co-discussant in Spain, but it goes well.
When it is over, I rush out to get a taxi to Jerusalem, which means, of course, a taxi to the checkpoint, on the other side of which the BBC has a car waiting. There are no taxis, so for 15 shekels I take a lift from a handicraft seller whose car is so old and beat up I am amazed it still runs.
The checkpoint cannot be rushed. First you show your passport to an Israeli soldier in a heavily-reinforced cabin. Then you pass into what can only be described as a cattle grid full of bewildering doors which can only be gone through when the light turns green. I heard an Israeli say once that it was no more than what you go through now at airports. But I’ve never known an airport where you stand behind grilles, taking off your belt and shoes while a gun-slinging soldier barks orders through a loudspeaker. We are held up because a man with two small girls keeps going through the infra-red portal and beeping. He has to keep coming back, taking more and more items off his girls. The girls are frightened; they want to go through with Daddy, but they have to go through one at a time. Everyone is shouting: the people waiting to go through, the soldiers through the loudspeakers, and the girls, not surprisingly, burst into tears.
Unlike the Palestinians, who have to show their electronic cards along with their permits, and answer a barrage of contemptuous questions, I am waved through, just about on time, and the car whisks me to Jerusalem. We pass Tantur, and the settlements, and suddenly everything is modern, western, rich, fast.
My driver is a Muslim Palestinian with an Israeli passport. Because he is Arab, he can drive over into the West Bank –very useful, he says, for the BBC when they do stories on Ramallah and Nablus. So it turns out that it is only Jewish Israelis who are not allowed onto the West Bank by order of the Israeli government; Arab Israelis can pass over.
There is nothing here that is not extremely complicated.
The TV interview is down the line with the studio in London, where the presenter and my co-discussant, a very dour man from the National Secular Society, debate whether Christmas still has any meaning. I make a passionate case, borrowing from Williams’s speech in which he spoke of God’s freedom to act in human history so that we might be free, and I manage to make the presenter laugh, which is good. Terry Anderson objects to being made to feel guilty by Christians when he wants to have a good time at Christmas, but I assure him that I would hate him to feel guilty. But at the same time, I say, we’ll get a lot more out of Christmas if we remember it’s about the manger, and a little baby who breaks down the barriers between us and God.
Afterwards I head to the Holy Sepulchre and find the Franciscans saying evening office, before returning to Bethlehem in a taxi. My driver, who is Palestinian, offers to take me directly to my hotel, but it will cost another 60 shekels on top of the 40 we have agreed. That’s ridiculous, I say; it costs only 10 shekels from the checkpoint to my hotel. But I had forgotten that he is not allowed to use the main checkpoint to enter Bethelehem, but has to go all the way around by Beit Jala, which is longer than from Jerusalem to Bethlehem.
There is nothing here which is not complicated.
The next day it’s up early to see the church leaders off. We are going to have a short ceremony in which Leila will present the Bethlehem passports. It turns out to be a sweet, warm event. The leaders are all soft from what they have seen these last two days – the university, the hospital for the profoundly disabled, the orphanage. At the Holy Family hospital, Dr Williams tells me, the doctor told him that the poor deserve only the best. "That’s going straight into my Christmas sermon," he says.
Leila gives a brief speech: "Your visit reassures us that we are not forgotten," she tells the four pilgrims. She says the passports signal "our hope that you will continue to be ambassadors for Bethlehem after you return home".
The passport asks the bearer to "remain a true friend to Bethlehem through its imprisonment" and that he or she will "strive to keep the ideals of Bethlehem alive as long as the wall stands."
David Coffey, the moderator of the Free Churches, is deputed to respond. He promises on behalf of the four that they will continue to be "the voice of the voiceless" of Bethlehem.
Then we joke about not mixing up their Bethlehem passports with their real ones.
"They might not appreciate it at Tel Aviv," the Cardinal laughs.
And then they’re off, out in the rain, back to Jerusalem and then onto Tel Aviv, back in time for Christmas. They have their passports and we have the pictures, and it’s just a question now of putting out another press release, which we do back at Manger Square. The newspapers and wires back home are full of Rowan Williams’s op ed in The Times that morning, in which he takes Blair to task for a Middle East policy – ie Iraq – that has endangered the Christian communities across the region. The Times calls it an "astonishing" attack which, when I read it, it is.
"I have spent the past two days with fellow Christian leaders in Bethlehem, its Christian population down to barely a quarter," the Archbishop of Canterbury writes. "There are some disturbing signs of Muslim anti-Christian feeling, despite the consistent traditions of coexistence. But their plight is made still more intolerable by the tragic conditions created by the "security fence" that almost chokes the shrinking town — the dramatic poverty, soaring unemployment and sheer practical hardship of travelling to school, work or hospital. The sense of desperate isolation is felt by Christians more acutely than most."
"I think he has earned his passport," I tell Leila.
I go with Maxim to the Basilica to look for the permit Leila has applied for, which will enable her to go to Jerusalem tonight for a dinner with diplomats. There are six places to pick up your permit – Catholic and Orthodox centres in Bethlehem itself, Beit Jala, and Beit Sahour. The permit says clearly which centre it is, but at the Basilica we find that the Israelis have mixed them all up, and Leila’s is not there. Maxim knows he will have to go to all six places to look for the permit. It may be just administrative chaos, but Maxim doubts it. "They just do it to make life difficult for us," he says cheerfully.
There’s nothing here, etc.
I leave Maxim to his permit hunt, and take a few deep breaths in the square.
The decorations are up now, the lights on, the star of Bethlehem suspended between palm trees. "Please, you come have tea with me," says Yassir, still holding out his beads. "I will, Yassir, thank you," I say. "After Christmas."
I turn round, and head down to St Joseph’s chapel, just feet from where the light came into the world. There’s no one there, and I can whisper it aloud: O come, thou Rod of Jesse, come.
Christmas Eve: The sun is strong and warm in the chill air, and the square is heaving now – thousands waiting on the arrival of Patriarch Michel Sabbah from Jerusalem, helium santas floating above the crowd. Scouts and guides process in a cacophony of drums and bagpipes. If it weren’t for this annual ritual – the arrival of the Patriarch – Bethlehem’s isolation would be complete. Jerusalem and Bethlehem would be entirely cut off from each other, Siamese cities surgically severed. But there is this one, remaining lifeline - this one vessel which still pumps blood. But for how long? Without its Christians, Bethlehem would be cast off into the Islamic Arab world, just another ramshackle town on the West Bank. But as long as Jesus Christ’s followers – descendants of the first witnesses to the Great Event – remain, there is still a chance that the most famous town in the world can remain open to the world. But for that to happen Christians need to start coming here, spending time here, and claiming their citizenship.
The Patriarch descends from his car, and is lost at once in the crowd. The Basilica bells toll. Christmas coralled is still Christmas. Dong. Dong. Dong. Christus natus est.