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Letter from Bethlehem: Christmas 2006
by Judy Lash Balint
December 25, 2006

Every Christmas I make the 12-minute drive from my Jerusalem home to Bethlehem for a reality check on the beleaguered little town five miles away.

This year, contrary to the customary gloomy reports from the international media, things were bustling in Bethlehem. Bright blue cloudless skies and comfortable temperatures help make things more pleasant than in previous years when a cold, grey drizzle dampened spirits.

Driving up to the Rachel's Passage checkpoint in my car with Israeli plates, a quick check of my press credentials is all that's needed to get waved through. Tour buses and private cars get the same summary but courteous treatment by the Israeli soldiers stationed at the checkpoint.

Parked on the side of the road is my usual mode of transportation to the only place in Bethlehem I visit regularly. Oblivious to the Christmas traffic, the driver of the bulletproof Egged 163 bus is waiting for passengers to Rachel's Tomb.

In Bethlehem, the cacophony created by dozens of shabby yellow taxis and dusty blue and white mini-buses all vying to drop their riders off as close to Manger Square as possible does not create a particularly pastoral atmosphere this Christmas morning. But the thousands of tourists who descend on the hilly town are intent on reaching their destination.

Inside the Church of the Nativity, scene of the 39-day siege by Arab terrorists in April 2002, lines form to get into the crypt. As sunlight pours in through the windows just below the ornate ceiling, tour guides lead their groups around the marble pillars and under the brass lamps adorned with Christmas baubles, while those selling candles do a brisk business among the predominantly Asian pilgrims.

This year, authorities allowed the center of Manger Square to be used as a parking lot for press and dignitaries, preventing the scene we witnessed two years ago when hundreds of Moslems poured out of the mosque and took over the area directly in front of the Church of the Nativity for midday prayers.

A few other things are missing from previous years�the ubiquitous pictures of Yasser Arafat and the late-model Palestinian Authority police cars. One or two small pictures of Yasser are still to be found on official buildings, and a few uniformed PA police maintain a low-key presence, but nothing like the all-out mass force of years past.

Mid-morning, the local faithful are to be found at Christmas Mass in the Santa Caterina church in the grounds of the Church of the Nativity. Several thousand worshipers wait reverently to take part in the ritual as the voices of the choir resonate from the tall arched walls. Apart from a large presence of nuns, almost everyone in the church is Christian Arab. It's clear from their dress and their bearing that they're from the dwindling upper strata of Bethlehem society.

Away from the crowds on a small side street south of the Church, we come across a quiet well-kept Christian Coptic cemetery with a serene panoramic view over the rolling hills. The gravestones are all marked with ornate crosses and Arabic inscriptions. Some of them have small pictures of the deceased, as in the eastern European style.

In the center of Bethlehem we find Martyrs Street, marked with a special black and red street sign. Posters of armed "martyrs" are pasted everywhere around town.

Indeed, the propaganda battle goes on all over Bethlehem. At the beautifully appointed International Center of Bethlehem, a complex filled with a health club, restaurant, art gallery and media center, the only literature on display is a pink and white multi-lingual brochure entitled "Let Us Pray for Peace in the Holy Land."

But instead of a prayerful tract, readers find a crude piece of agit-prop against the security barrier, filled with inflammatory language accusing Israel of "ethnic cleansing" and calling for a "campaign for boycott, divestment and sanctions" against the Jewish state. Not a word about the terrorism emanating from Bethlehem that necessitated a wall.

Driving out of Bethlehem there are scattered signs of the few thousand remaining Christians in the town. In the yard of a lovely villa a few hundred yards from the security barrier there's a life-size blow-up Santa Claus.

There's a five-minute wait at the checkpoint back into Jerusalem. Just enough time to notice two revealing signs close by. One is an official Israeli sign in Arabic, Hebrew and English that reads: "Palestine Red Crescent and All Ambulances Have First Priority to By Pass the Line."

The other is graffiti painted on the Bethlehem side of the security barrier. The slogan: Stop the wall" is accompanied by a picture of a lion emblazoned with a dollar sign and the words "shekalim" and "money," devouring a keffiyah-draped white dove of peace.