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The birth of Jesus– and the mythological birth of a Palestinian state

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Entrance of the Church of Nativity from Manger Square, Bethlehem, 25 December 2012.

On Christmas Eve the Latin Patriarch Fouad Twal declared that this year Bethlehem would celebrate both “the birth of Christ our Lord and the birth of the state of Palestine.” But as tourists poured into Manger Square for the annual festivities—drum lines, bagpipes, an address from President Mahmoud Abbas—outside of the city center shop owners were working, not celebrating, because despite the hailed UN Observer status, the West Bank is in economic decline.

The Church of Nativity, Bethlehem, 25 December 2012.
Pilgrims dancing in Manger Square, Bethlehem, 25 December 2012.

Since last year, “business is down 100 percent,” joked Ra’ar ‘Alayam on Christmas day, an owner of a butcher shop in Bethlehem’s old city. From his store door frame four turkeys hung, which per kilo cost about four times as much as a chicken, packaged and ready to be sold. His shop is on the main road by the entrance to the outdoor fruit and vegetable market. Yet despite a location in what should be the center of commerce during the busiest season of the year, ‘Alayam’s sales are slow. “Realistically” he said they are “down 70 to 80 percent,” since before the second Intifada.

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Bethlehem’s old city, 25 December 2012.

The noticeable lack of tourists in the old city on Christmas Day is a visual contrast to the stated increased of visitors estimated by the Palestinian Ministry of Tourism. 15,000 went to Bethlehem for Christmas Eve, up by 20 percent from last year. But often those visitors enter Bethlehem through a tourist company and are whisked directly to the Christian holy sites from Jerusalem, then returned hours later. On Christmas day I only saw two international tourists in the interior of the old city, a young French couple that referred to their stay as in “Israel,” although Bethlehem is internationally recognized as part of the occupied Palestinian territories. As well, within the first five minutes that I was in Bethlehem I overheard one tour guide trying to dissuade a group of middle-aged American men from venturing off into other parts of the city.

But ‘Alayam’s customers are not tourists. His business comes from local Palestinians, yet the decreasing gross domestic product (GDP) in the West Bank and rising unemployment are impacting his sales. In 2012 the International Monetary Fund reported [PDF] in the past two years the GDP in the West Bank went down by half and unemployment hit 19 percent. A science teacher inside of ‘Alayam’s shop laughed that his wages were “down 100 percent,” reflecting the salary freezes for public workers that are a result of the Palestinian Authority’s $1.2 billion debt to private banks. This loss of wages is not only affecting Bethlehem, but also the surrounding cities that are dependent upon wages from the city.

“Before [the Oslo Accords] people blamed the occupation, but they understand that now it is not our first problem, the government is,” said ‘Alayam. “Abu Mazen came and he said we will have a state, life and money. And then nothing happened.” ‘Ayalam also said that he welcomed the Israeli military to re-occupy Area A of the West Bank, as it was occupied 20 years ago, because comparatively, at that time, there was prosperity. Even Abbas himself has threatened to disband the PA just last week—so long as Israeli moves ahead with announced construction plans in E1, a portion of East Jerusalem that connects the city to the West Bank.

Dheisheh refugee camp, 25 December 2012.

In Dheisheh refugee camp, a ten-minute drive from Bethlehem– but one hour during Christmas when PA police closed down main roads for Abbas’s security convoy– there was no sense of, or benefit from the international celebration a few kilometers away. “Now we are in the stage of implementation of policies that were made during Oslo,” said Mohamad Aziz, 21, a business major at Bethlehem University who likened the current economic conditions to the global recession following the Industrial Revolution. Aziz is a member of the hip-hop group Palestine Street. From his recording studio, he and two of the four band members, Diya Milhem and Hisham al-Iham told me that the Christmas festivities that made it on the airwaves to the outside, unoccupied world are “not the reality, it’s just one day in the year.” Aziz added that he overheard a number of journalists on Christmas prompting Palestinians to manufacture jubilation over the statehood bid.

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Deheishe refugee camp, 25 December 2012.

When discussing the Christmas tour groups to Bethlehem that do not enter the old city–or Dheisheh–Aziz clasped his hands like they were in cuffs and said the guides conceal the “hidden elements,” of the occupation. He then showed me an image on his computer of the “real Christmas tree,” a section of Israel’s separation, or Apartheid wall, decorated with barbwire and tear gas canisters. Three years ago in 2010 the PA allowed 50 Israeli tour guides from Israeli companies to take groups to Bethlehem. At the time, over 40 Palestinian guides were supposed to be granted reciprocial privilages to take groups inside of Israel’s 1967 borders. However, that promise has yet to be honored.

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Deheishe refugee camp, 25 December 2012.

All photographs are by the author.


Allison Deger

Allison Deger is the Assistant Editor of Follow her on twitter at @allissoncd.

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10 Responses

  1. James Canning on December 29, 2012, 2:07 pm

    Very interesting piece.

  2. HarryLaw on December 29, 2012, 3:02 pm

    “Three years ago in 2010 the PA allowed 50 Israeli tour guides from Israeli companies to take groups to Bethlehem. At the time, over 40 Palestinian guides were supposed to be granted reciprocial privilages to take groups inside of Israel’s 1967 borders. However, that promise has yet to be honored”. This is no surprise, just what agreements with the Palestinians have the Israelis honored, the most fundamental being the stopping of settlement expansion from day one of the Oslo accords, the first housing unit put up and the first Israeli citizen transferred into occupied territory in breach of Geneva 49.6, should have marked the death knell of that agreement, instead the PA carried on for nearly 20 years, now they are shocked that the Israelis want to continue that colonization. By the way the Israelis want to see the West Bank economy deteriorate or at least be dependent on Israeli only goods, what better way to drive Palestinians away, only when the Palestinian leadership realize that they will receive nothing from the Israelis can the process of self empowerment begin.

  3. annie on December 29, 2012, 8:07 pm

    this freaks me out:

    ‘Ayalam also said that he welcomed the Israeli military to re-occupy Area A of the West Bank, as it was occupied 20 years ago, because comparatively, at that time, there was prosperity.

    Israeli military re-occupying is probably not going to be like it was 20 years ago. not at all. great report allison.

    • Rusty Pipes on December 29, 2012, 8:37 pm

      That’s almost as weird as Abbas’ recent interview in Ha’aretz. After all of the efforts to get observer status for Palestine at the UN, rather than threatening to prosecute Israeli officials in the ICC, he’s threatening to hand over the keys to Netanyahu if he doesn’t return to the negotiating table?

      Abbas, in an interview with the Israeli daily Haaretz, said that if such the political stalemate persisted he would hand over “the keys” for the occupied West Bank to the Israeli government.

      “If there is no progress even after the election I will take the phone and call (Prime Minister Benjamin) Netanyahu,” Abbas said.

      “I’ll tell him… Sit in the chair here instead of me, take the keys, and you will be responsible for the Palestinian Authority.”

      “Once the new government in Israel is in place, Netanyahu will have to decide — yes or no,” Abbas said in the interview published on the paper’s website late Thursday.

      Former Israeli Foreign Minister and leader of Yisrael Beitanu Avigdor Lieberman issued a ‘congratulations’ for the remarks.

      “We are congratulating Abu Mazen [Abbas] for reaching the correct conclusion, that only after his disappearance from the leadership of the Palestinian Authority, it will be possible to renew the diplomatic process,” Lieberman said in a statement.

      “We are eagerly anticipating a formal announcement issued by Abbas’ office regarding his retirement,” he added.

      • Hostage on December 30, 2012, 5:30 am

        After all of the efforts to get observer status for Palestine at the UN, rather than threatening to prosecute Israeli officials in the ICC, he’s threatening to hand over the keys to Netanyahu if he doesn’t return to the negotiating table?

        You’re just reading a strange summary of the Haaretz interview:

        The PA president stressed that despite Israeli fears, he does not plan to exploit Palestine’s new status as a UN nonmember state to bring charges against Israel before the International Criminal Court in the Hague.

        “I won’t do anything as long as there are diplomatic negotiations,” he said.

        “But if the stalemate continues, if there’s no movement in the peace process, the building in the settlements continues and Israel won’t release our money so that we can pay salaries, what’s left for us to do?”

        At this point, Saeb Erakat, head of the Palestinian negotiating team, who was sitting next to Abbas, interrupted, and said that a team of Palestinian and foreign lawyers were in the midst of preparing a legal opinion and recommendations regarding how to proceed with regard to the ICC, and that a summary document would be presented to Abbas in February.

        “As far as we’re concerned, all possibilities are on the table,” said Abbas after Erekat’s remark. “But we won’t act or do anything until we’re certain there’s no reason to wait any longer.”
        Abbas discussed the deteriorating security situation in the West Bank in the weeks since the General Assembly vote on Palestinian statehood, saying he had ordered the Palestinian security forces to prevent violent acts against Israel.

        “We will not permit a third armed intifada, only nonviolent resistance,” he said.

        During his meeting with Gal-On, Abbas said that since the vote making Palestine a nonmember state, it was actually Israel that had started to reduce its security cooperation with the Palestinians, as part of its punitive measures against the PA.

        “The Israeli government has taken 50 different steps since the UN move,” Abbas told Gal-On. “The Israeli military has started to raid Palestinian cities without coordinating with our security forces. They don’t ask permission and don’t even let us know in advance.”

        The secretary-general of the PA presidency, Tayeb Abdul Rahim, who also attended the meeting, intervened and said that during the past three months Israel had arrested 200 members of the PA security forces, though most were released after a brief questioning.

        During the interview, Abbas responded to Netanyahu’s attacks against him for trying reconcile with Hamas.

        “Hamas is a reality,” Abbas said. “Israel itself understands this when it speaks to Hamas in Gaza. ”

        He added that his security forces had approved demonstrations by Hamas in several West Bank cities recently because to have blocked the demonstrations would be undemocratic.

        With that, he stressed that the PA security forces had not stopped foiling Hamas terror activities.

        “If they smuggle weapons or explosives or launder money, we arrest them immediately,” Abbas said. “We’ve done this many times and we’ve confiscated weapons that were smuggled to Hamas men from Israel. We will not allow Hamas or any other organization except for the security forces to have weapons.”

        The PA was not the entity that the UN recognized. The resolution said the PLO Executive has been acting as the provisional government of the State of Palestine ever since 1988.

        If you check the various news services, like IMEMC, Maan, and Wafa you’ll find plenty of articles which say that Abbas will immediately go to the ICC if any construction begins in the E1 area, e.g.

      • Rusty Pipes on December 30, 2012, 8:13 pm

        Thanks for the clarification, Hostage. Ha’aretz is behind a paywall.

      • Hostage on December 31, 2012, 8:24 am

        Thanks for the clarification, Hostage. Ha’aretz is behind a paywall.

        It looks as if they are giving Netanyahu & the international community enough rope to hang themselves. If the Security Council refuses to take action on issues, like deportations and construction of settlements, then they can’t complain when Palestine finally takes the issues to a competent Court and asks for a legal remedy.

        The real question isn’t why the Palestinians haven’t joined the ICC yet. That would require that they pay assessments for the privilege of having their case heard. The real question is why the Prosecutor hasn’t acknowledged the General Assembly’s recognition of Palestine and responded to the existing Article 12(3) declaration accordingly? The purpose of the Court is to help end impunity and deter crimes that are subject to its jurisdiction. The Prosecutor’s continuing silence about illegal colonization of the territory of a State that has formally accepted ICC jurisdiction is simply outrageous.

        Several members of the League of Arab States are also members of the Court. They provided the Prosecutor with an exhibit in 2009 which listed treaties in force between themselves and the State of Palestine regarding extradition, diplomatic immunity, and a host of others subjects. Those agreements pre-date the existence of the Court itself. That means Palestine has always been a third state for the purposes of the Rome Statute. The General Assembly resolution which formally recognized the 1988 Palestinian Unilateral Declaration of Independence simply confirmed that fact.

        In one of the Ivory Coast cases, the Court subsequently ruled that non-member States can make retroactive Article 12(3) declarations, like the one Palestine supplied in 2009. It was effective for all crimes committed on its territory since July of 2002 when the Court came into existence. The Court also ruled that non-member states have to accept its jurisdiction for any crime listed in the Rome Statute, and cannot limit their Article 12(3) declarations to only certain situations, while excluding others.

        So the Prosecutor would be required to investigate any Palestinian crimes, as well as any committed by Israelis. Significantly, the Prosecutor and the Court cannot require the Members of the League of Arab States or the OIC States to violate the terms of their treaty agreements on extradition and diplomatic immunity with the State of Palestine in accordance with the explicit terms of Article 98 of the Rome Statute. Those agreements do not allow acts of armed resistance against military occupation and military objectives to be treated as crimes.

        So the former Prosecutor already had legally binding evidence that Palestine was a third state for the purposes Article 98, and should have acted accordingly when he received their Article 12(3) declaration in the days immediately after Operation Cast Lead. If he had fulfilled his obligations under the Statute, hundreds of lives might have been spared – including those who died in the flotillas trying to bring attention to the inhuman siege against the population of Gaza.

        I’d be surprised if the lawyers advising the Palestinians haven’t considered the option of obtaining a ruling from the Pre-Trial Chamber on the validity of the 2009 Article 12(3) Declaration.

    • dimadok on December 29, 2012, 9:13 pm

      20 years ago it was far more brutal and direct that it may be now.

    • yrn on December 30, 2012, 5:39 am


      Welcome to reality in the middle east……
      It can freak you out, but that’s real life ……………….

  4. on December 30, 2012, 12:10 am

    anyone ever watch the US sitcom…called The West Wing….

    I never watched it…but recoil at watching one part of a episode…

    where the pals and zio were ..””suppose” to be negotiating……
    in the end ..big fat zero

    the pal negotiations team member says to the US guy….


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