The Daily Life of Kawther Salam

  ..: Happy New Year From Bethlehem :..
January 2, 2005

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Happy New Year !

Separation Wall : A Christmas Present to Bethlehem
Palestinian- Americans are denied access to Jerusalem

“Merry Christmas and Happy New Year, the Palestinians wish that the coming year  2005 will stop the war and bring peace, justice, freedom and love for everybody in our troubled world.”

“Israel welcomed the Christian Pilgrims and the tourists by building a separation wall in Bethlehem. They put all the Palestinian-Christian citizens who live in Bethlehem, Bet Sahour and Bet Jala in a cage and blocked the door. This was the Israeli Christmas present for Christian Pilgrims, tourists and the citizens of Bethlehem in the year 2005” said Salwa Awad, the wife of Priest Dr. Bishara Awad, the director of International Bible College in Bethlehem.

“The Palestinian Christians were denied the right to celebrate the Christmas and the New Year festivities in Bethlehem and Jerusalem. The separation wall blocked our freedom of movement. We requested from the Israeli Civil Administration one month earlier a permission to share with our Christian brothers the Christmas and the New Year celebrations held in Jerusalem, but we were  granted the permission only on the first of January”, said the Professor Salwa Awad.
Salwa Awad and her husband are Palestinian-American citizens, they carry American passports, they live in Bethlehem, some of their sons and the family still live in the U.S., said Salwa: “The Israeli government does not respect the American citizens who live in Palestine, we are not allowed access the Israeli Airport Ben Gurion, we are not allowed access the foreigner passage at Allenby Bridge, we are not allowed access to our Church in Jerusalem. When my husband had a meeting in the American Embassy in Jerusalem, this was some days before the Christmas, he tried to pass the  Bethlehem-Israeli border near Al-Tantour Institute called 'Border 19'. The soldiers looked at his American passport with much disrespect, “this is not enough, go to the Atzion military authority and bring a pass permission”, said the Israeli soldiers stationed at the blockade at the entrance of Bethlehem. When we requested a permit to access Jerusalem from the Israeli authorities, we had to wait for long time. Sometimes they refused to grant us the permission, we were issued only a seven days permit after Christmas for which we had to wait four weeks”.

“We need to pray in our Church in Jerusalem. My husband is a priest and a doctor. Our people are always waiting in the Church. We don't have security problems, our family and our relatives do not have any security problems either. We carry American passports, but there is no respect at the Israeli blockades. It's like that, we are guilty. But why? It's  just like that, being a Palestinian is a problem”, said Professor Salwa Awad.

“Bethlehem the City of Peace, where the prince of peace, Jesus, was born, does not live the peace” said Dr. Bishara Awad. Unfortunately the peace is missing in this city in the Holy Land. The Church of the Nativity in the town of Bethlehem is under very restrictive Israeli closure, blocked by a wall and besieged by the Israeli army.

Salwa talked about the Israeli propaganda in the media, she said: “what the Israelis say in the media is one, and what the Israelis implement is something completely different. We heard to the Israeli formal declaration before Christmas, where they said, “we will open the main blockade at the entrance of Bethlehem, we will allow the Christian pilgrims and the tourist to reach the city, we will allow the Palestinians Christians access to Jerusalem etc.”. This was all Israeli propaganda. They cut through the middle of Bethlehem with their separation wall, the pilgrims and the tourists were not allowed passage through Israeli checkpoints in order to reach the traditional birthplace of Jesus on Christmas Eve. The Israeli soldiers sent back the Christian worshippers from Jerusalem, some Palestinian-Christians were detained, others were arrested. The hotels in the city were empty. “

Church in Bethlehem (Source: Christian Website from Bethlehem)

When the Latin Patriarch Michael Sabah came to the city he arrived at Catherine's Church. The crowd in the Church was far less than in the recent years, than during the boom period of 1993 when tens of thousands of Palestinian people would flood into the West Bank town for Christmas. 

The wife of Priest Dr. Bishara Awad said “Our celebrations in Bethlehem, the Christmas and the New Year in Bethlehem, continue to be the celebrations of a separation wall, of imprisonment of us and the other cities, of borders of harassment, conflict, insecurity, fear, military occupation, detention, demolitions, arrest, shooting and killing,  wall of separation.”

Salwa adds: “the Israeli built the separation wall in the middle of Bethlehem, they made lots of changes behind the wall, over 10 Jewish settler families settled behind the wall in the middle of Bethlehem. They changed the border map of the city. This restrictive Israeli measures around Bethlehem are related to the plan of the Israeli government which was approved in the Israeli Ministerial Council in 1994. This plan consists of grabbing more land from the Bethlehem community in order to add it to the Jerusalem city community, as this city should once become the capital of their state of “Greater Israel”.

Between 1994 and 2000, during what was called the “peace time”, the Israeli occupation placed a wall around the Rachel Tomb, effectively cutting Bethlehem in half. They made changes in the border delimitations of Bethlehem in order to grab the land of the city, then the Israeli occupation built a Jewish synagogue and a yeshiva school near Rachels Tomb in the middle of Bethlehem, they grabbed the main street from Bethlehem to Jerusalem. The wall they built in the middle of the main street was only 1,50 meters high and restricted the travel movement in the city. The travellers who want to get out of the city must now walk four kilometers around the northern part of the city until they arrive the Israeli checkpoint “19” near the Al-Tantour Institute, where all the must stop and wait hours for the Israeli military checking and insulting.

The Israelis continued grabbing the land of Bethlehem at the border of Rachel Tomb, they threw the Islamic Wakf (administration of the mosque) workers out from their building after the Central Command issued a military order to grab this building in 1999. Tens of Palestinian shops under the building were closed becauee of the same military order. In 2004 the Israeli occupation bombed the Muslim cemetery at the border of Rachels Tomb, claiming a security reasons. The bones of the dead  flew in the air everywhere. This was another step between of the Israeli governments plans of grabbing the border of Bethlehem city. Recently, they built the separation wall which now blocks the city of peace.

Over 150 Palestinian tourist shops which stand between the Israeli blockade at Rachels Tomb and their “checkpoint 19” at the entrance of the city are paralysed. The Palestinians who live here are jailed in a small area which was added to the jurisdiction of Jerusalem (this area is located in the middle of Bethlehem), but the Palestinian people from the area were not added to the Jerusalem census. They are now denied the right of the free movement from both sides, to Jerusalem in the north and to Bethlehem in the south. They are surrounded by two Israeli blockades and they live behind a separation wall.

The Separation or Apartheid Wall in Bethlehem (Source: Ha'aretz)

Salwa Awad describes the atmosphere during the Christian festivities in Bethlehem:  “The world should know that the place of Jesus birthplace did not celebrate the Christmas and the New year.  there was no real celebration in the city of Bethlehem, the birthplace of Jesus, there were no lights, no Pilgrims, no tourists, there is no life in the city. We are still mourning President Arafat. A seat in the front row of St. Catherine's Church on Manger Square was left symbolically empty and draped with an Arabic headdress (a Keffiyah) during the midnight mass as a sign of respect for Arafat. The Holy city was empty. The hotels and the shops were empty, there were no sales compared to the 1990s, the Israeli borders effectively shut down the tourism, the economy, the education and our free movement in Bethlehem and out of city. The students of Bethlehem University have decreased in numbers, the students can't reach the University. We are shut into a concentration camp in  Bethlehem.”

Other Palestinians from Bethlehem said that the Israeli soldiers at the checkpoint 19 cut their access permissions to Jerusalem after they had reached the border, the soldiers say “mamnoa, sagour” what means “it's closed”. We were denied permission to reach our churches in Jerusalem or to share in the Christian celebrations in the city. The Palestinians said they are sick of the borders, the separation wall, the daily killing, insulting, humiliations. “We are a human beings, we want to live in peace, hope the year 2005 will bring us peace and justice.”

The Palestinians said they wish a miracle would happen in their life, they hope that Israel will make a real peace with the new PA, they were telling the world that Arafat is the main obstacle to peace, now President Arafat is dead, and Israel should make a real peace. They should stop heaping obstacles on our shoulders, they are the occupier. They should recognize the basic rights of our people to live free as human beings without the occupation. It's enough, we have lived for 57 years under the occupation, enough is enough.

The Palestinians in Bethlehem are worried, they said. The Palestinian Presidential candidates did not reach Bethlehem yet. Just Abu Mazen and Dr. Mustafa Al-Bargouti arrived in Bethlehem, we didn't see the other candidates. The Israelis did not issue the pass permissions for some of them. We are not sure if the Israeli's will open the door of the separation cage in Bethlehem, and also the other borders during the election, we don't know if we can reach Ramallah to vote there. There are many Palestinians who live in Bethlehem, but who are officially registered in Ramallah. They can't vote here.

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