December 25, 2006

Holidays not Happy in Occupied Bethlehem

Holidays not happy in occupied Bethlehem
New Brunswickers speak out against Israel's wall.

The holidays aren't so happy in Bethlehem this year. The Palestinian city where Jesus Christ was born is being occupied by the Israeli military and surrounded by a massive wall.

"Bethlehem was initially a suburb of Jerusalem, but Israel's wall has completely separated the two cities," said Philip Rizk, a 24-year-old NGO employee who works on education projects and inter-faith dialog in Bethlehem.

"In the past, Christians would have parades happening from Jerusalem all the way to Bethlehem [about 12 km] and on a cultural level, that is no longer possible."

Israel says it is building the 20 ft. high concrete wall, along with sniper towers and barbed wire fences, for security. Jack Gegenberg, a math professor at UNB in Fredericton, and organizer with Canadians, Arabs and Jews for a Just Peace, doesn't buy the official rhetoric.

"Militarized Israel has become a very dangerous place for Jews. I don't think that walls ever made safe societies," he said.

The wall was declared illegal by the International Court of Justice in The Hague on July 9, 2004 but Israel is supported by conservative governments in the U.S. and now Canada, so no one can enforce the ruling.

"We want a just peace between the two peoples: either two separate states or some form of bi-national entity," says Gegenberg. "The wall will destabilize the remnants of Palestinian society, stopping people from going about their lives."

In June, Pink Floyd's lead singer Roger Waters, spray painted the words "We don't need no thought control" from his famous tune the wall on Israel's concrete barrier.

The conflict between Israelis and Palestinians is easily one of the most discussed and least understood events in the world today.

Like the divide between First Nations and settlers in Canada, the conflict between Isrealis and Palestinians is essentially about land and who controls it.

Bethlehem is part of the West Bank territory which Israel seized from Jordan in the six day war of 1967. The area, which Palestinians hope will one day be part of their state, is considered to be under Israeli occupation by United Nations Security Council, the United Nations General Assembly, the International Court of Justice, and the International Committee of the Red Cross.

"Religion is used to justify a lot of what's happening here on all sides, but it isn't really a religious conflict," says Philip Rizk, who has spent the last two years in the occupied territories and Israel. He estimates that around 10 per cent of Bethlehem's residents are Christian.

Religious extremism, the brand fostered by some: Palestinian Muslims, Israeli Jews and American Evangelicals, is always dangerous. It should always be condemned. But extremism doesn't just arrive in a society overnight, it arises at different times in history from a tapestry of political, cultural and economic circumstances. When people face misery, when their dignity is stolen from them, God is there to provide salvation in a life that isn't this one.

Hamas, the Islamic resistance movement, won democratic Palestinian elections at the beginning of 2006, further ensnaring religion with politics in Jesus' old stomping grounds.

The Harper government considers Hamas a terrorist organization and cut all funding to the Palestinian government, collectively punishing thousands for electing the 'wrong people'.

The labels Conservatives stick on Hamas are accurate for the most part; the group has organized vicious suicide bombings against average Israelis.

But cutting funding to the Hamas-led government signaled one thing: the West doesn't actually want democracy in the Middle East. Countries typically considered 'moderate' in western media-speak including: Egypt and Saudi Arabia, would almost certainly elect Islamist governments if democratic elections were held tomorrow. The reasons for this rise in religious extremism vary based on historical circumstances from country to country.

"It was the Israelis who were responsible for funding and building organizations like Hamas," notes Jack Gegenberg in Fredericton. "They [Hamas] were seen as opposition to secular nationalists like the PLO [Palestinian Liberation Organization]."

Palestinian resistance is typically denoted as Islamic terrorism in the West. And terror is certainly a real and growing danger in Palestine and beyond. However, the majority of resistance, the kind Jesus would have supported, goes unreported.

"Bethlehem has many non-violent resistance groups," says Philip Rizk. "It's crucially important that people get a better understanding of what's happening there [Israel-Palestine] than they have now," said professor Gegenberg, adding that current misinformation about the conflict allows bad policy to continue.

"Canada's role should be to get people together, not to reinforce their withdrawal from each other," he says.

While bored know-nothings debate the merits of "Merry Christmas" versus "Happy Holidays" as if some greater principle was at stake, Palestinian Christians and Muslims in Bethlehem are forced to live in an occupied space that's not so different from an open air prison.

Happy Holidays to you and yours.

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