O little town of Bethlehem
11 Days to Christmas

Two thousand years ago, Christ was born in Bethlehem, a city that was occupied by Rome the big imperial power of the day. Jewish zealots were known to have maintained a stiff resistance to the Roman presence, and the Judaean-Palestinian province wasn't considered to be one of the most idyllic corners of the empire.

Today, the situation may not be altogether different from the time of Jesus because 'foreign occupation' is still a defining characteristic of life in modern Bethlehem. Officially, at least, Bethlehem is part of the autonomous Palestinian National Authority, and is included in the internationally recognised territory of the future Palestinian state (that is, all Palestinian land that was annexed by Israel after the 1967 war). However, there is a huge gulf between what is 'official' and what is 'real', and much of the problem has been in reconciling the two.

It should have been a very simple process. A peace treaty is signed in 1993 by two warring parties and a decision was taken to make it a 'peace of the brave'. But somewhere down the line, it became obvious that peace cannot be established on mere rhetoric and photo-opps, and more substantive measures needed to be adopted.

For instance, there is still continuing construction of Jewish colonies (or 'settlements') in Palestinian territory despite explicit commitment not to do so, Israeli checkpoints and roadblocks that prevent Palestinians to lead normal life, relentless provocative gestures from fanatical settlers whose obnoxious behaviour is politely ignored by world media and the frustrated response is given headline hogging coverage, regular curfews, house demolitions, civilian deaths, and constant humiliations have been a fact of life for Palestinian residents of Bethlehem and other Palestinian cities. And to add insult to injury, the new West Bank Barrier or Separation Wall, or to call it what it really is - the Berlin Wall of the Middle East, the Israeli occupation authorities are unilaterally deciding the borders between the two 'states', and most significantly, rupturing the political, economic and social life of ordinary civilians.

Now if Joseph and Mary had to travel to modern Bethlehem, I'm sure, the situation wouldn't have seemed altogether different. Perhaps differences, if any, would be in nuance but the essential brutality that characterises any foreign occupation would, undoubtedly, give them a sense of deja vu. Joseph would be eyed with suspicion and humiliated, Mary might be forced to give birth to the Christ Child at one of the checkpoints like this Palestinian woman from Jerusalem.

It was a cruel world in which Jesus was born, and in the two thousand years since His time on Earth not much has changed. I'm not sure if things have worsened, but it's safe to say that cruelty has become technologically more sophisticated and brutality more subtle.

And in such a world, one wonders, how does one talk about the love that this Prince of Peace talked about? What words, language, gestures can be employed? Or maybe one can just ponder over the failures of things as they stand, and seriously consider peace not as a piece of rhetoric but as a serious option.

O little town of Bethlehem,
How still we see thee lie;
Above thy deep and dreamless sleep
The silent stars go by;
Yet in thy dark streets shineth
The everlasting light.
The hopes and fears of all the years
Are met in thee tonight.


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