Well, it was for me. And, even as I grew older and shed those infant - and most of my religious - illusions, that charming little association held. Perhaps it was the pleasing memory of getting a part in the Nativity play at primary school - alright, so I was 'just' a shepherd, but carried the role, I thought, with a certain 'pastoral presence' - yes, another happy childhood - or, maybe still, adult -illusion.
How odd, this Christmas, to reflect on my recent visit to the Little Town, and for the now predominant association to be the monstrous Apartheid Wall surrounding it. Not Manger Square. Not even the intimate Church of the Nativity, with its special symbolism. Just that faceless expanse of concrete inhumanity. How the Israeli Occupation deprives us even of our childish reverie.
Indeed, most of my mental images of Bethlehem are now of jarring, oppressive things: the queues of humiliated Palestinians lined-up beneath the towering wall waiting to be processed; the brutal checkpoint installation with its panopticon surveillance; the anonymous poverty just a few minutes walk from Manger Square; the sight of a nearby Israeli settlement, all affluent, coy and self-contained while the besieged Palestinains struggle to maintain essential services.
Palestinian existence. A people walled-in, their history and landmarks stolen. A topography of hidden, shameful purges and cultural vandalism which, as Ilan Pappe reminds us, extends across this Zionist-cleansed land:
"All over Israel many new settlements and national parks have become part of the country's collective memory without any reference to the Palestinian villages that once stood there, even where there are vestiges, such as an isolated house or a mosque, which visibly attest to the fact that people used to live there as recently as 1948." (1)And shamefully hidden, too, by Zionist historiography, the crushing truth of how that erasure of people and their ordinary, simple lives came about.
Pappe describes in vivid and forensic detail how Ben-Gurion's Consultancy - the inner cabal of Zionist elites - met, planned and approved their own version of a final solution for the mass removal and murder of the Palestinian population. With the British Mandate coming to a close, Hagana, Irgun and Stern Gang forces had already used multiple "retaliatory" pretexts for extinguishing Palestinian villages. And from the infamous Long Seminar (31 January 1948) came Ben-Gurion's "green light" and execution of a policy intended to "cause optimal damage and kill as many villagers as possible." (2).
Under Plan Dalet, villages like Deir Yassin witnessed the ruthless reality of the Consultancy's ethnic cleansing policy, as recounted here by Fahim Zaydan, a twelve year old Palestinian at the time, who saw his entire family murdered before his eyes:
"They took us out one after the other, shot an old man and when one of his daughters cried, she was shot too. Then they called my brother Muhammad, and shot him in front of us, and when my mother yelled, bending over him - carrying my little sister Hudra in her hands, still breastfeeding her - they shot her too." (3)The pain of such experiences are written on every Palestinian face. And that daily pain goes on. In the ritual humiliation of the West Bank people. In the wicked Israeli and international starvation of Gaza, a siege the 'civilized' European Union has wilfully served to enforce while knowing all-too-well the extent of Israel's own terrorist agenda and extra-judicial murder of Palestinians.
Exiled Palestinians, the world over, are also marked by the ongoing catastrophe. At our Palestinian support stall, some ethnic Palestinians, their families now many-generational parts of the mass exclusion, cannot even bear to look at the piles of photos we keep of the West Bank. One fine man, whose family fled in '48, recently stood reflecting with us, his quiet, dignified eyes filling-up as we talked of our own time in the refugee camps, of the routine dehumanisation and how he and his family remain lost among that discarded diaspora.
Up the street, amid the festive shoppers, a Salvation Army band played Oh Little Town of Bethlehem. And it occurred to me that no amount of Western refuge, new-land 'belonging' or consumer 'well-being' can compensate for the loss of one's home and right of return to that homeland. And I understood how only the exiled can understand the psychology and pain of exile.
And, again, those lingering thoughts and images of Bethlehem. Of oppressive security towers and trapped people. Little Town. Enclosed and humbled. Dusty, sad streets. Ragged kids kicking around, their tiny frames and paltry lives dwarfed by the wall.
Yet, something else. Something very particular and much more redeeming, a somehow defining association of resistance and hope: the wonderful spirit and generosity of those people we met and spent our time with in the town's Azeh and Aida Refugee Camps. Of all those smiling children. Of all those parents struggling, quietly, valiantly, to raise and protect them. Of our resilient friends running the little projects helping to keep their hopes alive. And of a kind man and his family who took us into his and other homes in one of the camps, to witness and share, in happy empathy, a little part of their lives.
To them and all our other Palestinian friends this Eid-ul-Adha and Christmas, my own humblest expressions of thanks and love.
1. Ilan Pappe, The Ethnic Cleansing of Palestine (Oneworld: 2006), p 89.
2. Ibid, p 64.
3. Ibid, p 90.