Going to Bethlehem
Eric Fistler – Israel/Palestine
Let us go now to Bethlehem and see this thing that has taken place, which the Lord has made known to us.” ~Luke 2:15b. Two thousand years ago, the angels of God proclaimed the birth of Jesus to lowly shepherds who tended their flocks by night. In response, those shepherds were moved to see what God had done. In a similar fashion three Ecumenical Accompaniers, including myself, have been called to come to Bethlehem to see what God has done and what God is doing.
Eric Fistler – Israel/Palestine
“Let us go now to Bethlehem and see this thing that has taken place, which the Lord has made known to us.” ~Luke 2:15b. Two thousand years ago, the angels of God proclaimed the birth of Jesus to lowly shepherds who tended their flocks by night. In response, those shepherds were moved to see what God had done. In a similar fashion three Ecumenical Accompaniers, including myself, have been called to come to Bethlehem to see what God has done and what God is doing.
Bethlehem, currently, is a small town, of about 140,000 residents (if one includes the surrounding towns of Beit Jala and Beit Sahour and the outlying villages). It remains one of the few places in Palestine which has retained a significant Christian population. When I visited Bethlehem in 2004, many of the Palestinians with whom I spoke were discouraged by the approaching wall and the increasing difficulty to travel to Jerusalem (it used to be a ten minute drive from Bethlehem to the Old City of Jerusalem). In the last two years much has changed. The Israeli government’s continued construction of the Wall (which can be seen in the above picture) has transformed Bethlehem from a city which brought hope to the world in the form of an infant savior to a ghetto of despair. The same people who still clung to the hope for peace and reconciliation two years ago are now becoming filled with growing hopelessness.
This despair stems from a variety of sources. The first is the extreme difficulty, if not impossibility, to visit Jerusalem. Two men which I see regularly at Checkpoint 300 (the only passage for Southern West Bank residents to travel to Jerusalem) are lucky enough to receive work permits which allow them to be in Jerusalem from 5am until 7pm. Unfortunately, their families have not been able to visit Jerusalem in two years-not for Easter, not for shopping, not to see relatives. Jerusalem remains the major commercial center for the West Bank and thus restricted access to Jerusalem means not only restricted access to holy sites and family, but also to basic shopping and commercial needs and desires.
Another source of despair stems from the lack of funding from the US and the EU. The lack of funding for NGOs and Civil Services has led to a greater economic strangulation for the entire Bethlehem area. As one Palestinian woman said, “There is simply no money– no money for new clothes, no money for school…and soon no money for food.” At Bethlehem University, almost half of the 2006 graduates were unable to receive diplomas because they were no longer able to pay their school fees.
Perhaps the greatest source of despair is Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert’s plan to unilaterally withdraw from areas of the West Bank and to unilaterally set Israel’s borders. This plan will not bring peace or security but instead will increase the ever widening divide between the Israeli and Palestinian people. George Bush’s support for Olmert’s plan was especially devastating to many Bethlehem residents. In a recent e-mail I received from an acquaintance, I was asked why the Palestinians were upset by this plan and whether the Palestinians would ever be satisfied. In response, I would paraphrase one of my heroes, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.: We cannot be satisfied as long as the Palestinian’s basic mobility is from a smaller ghetto to a larger one.
Despite all of this, my spirit remains hopeful, for God is indeed still at work here. In Bethlehem there has been a growing non-violent protest movement built on the examples of Gandhi and Martin Luther King Jr. Already throughout the Bethlehem area and the West Bank hundreds of Palestinians are being trained in non-violent resistance. The spirits of the prophets of old and the Prince of Peace are still alive in this Holy Land working continually and non-violently to create, not only a just peace, but reconciliation as well. Unlike Prime Minister Olmert, this non-violent resistance is not working unilaterally, but is working with a variety of Israeli peace organizations including Ta’ayush (www.taayush.org) and Machsom Watch (www.machsomwatch.org). These movements are working to bring about the dream of many: a dream of reconciliation and peaceful co-habitation in which the physical, emotional, mental, and spiritual security of all– Palestinians and Israelis– is achieved.
May the God of justice, peace, and steadfast love and mercy be with you all.
~Eric C Fistler, EA Bethlehem Team
Disclaimer: I am serving as an Ecumenical Accompanier in the World Council of Churches’ Ecumenical Accompaniment Programme in Palestine and Israel (EAPPI). The EAPPI is represented in the U.S. by Peaceful Ends through Peaceful Means: A Christian Witness for Peace in Israel and Palestine (PEPM).The views contained herein are personal and do not necessarily reflect those of PEPM or the WCC. If you would like to publish the information contained here or disseminate it further, please first contact the EAPPI Communications Officer and Managing Editor (firstname.lastname@example.org) for permission. Thank you.
Eric Fistler serves as a short-term volunteer with the Ecumenical Accompaniment Program in Palestine/Israel. He provides critical presence and witness to the injustices and violence of a culture of occupation and advocating for peace at this time in history.