BETHLEHEM: THE BIGGEST KEY IN THE WORLD (Friday 10 February)
Jerusalem to Bethlehem is, like most other journeys in the area, short but sometimes a bit fraught. Traffic in Bethlehem was gridlocked on the afternoon we visited, putting our whole schedule out of phase. Not surprisingly, Bethlehem is a Christian centre, dominated by the memory of a time long ago when one particular Palestinian Jewish family were shunted around the country at the behest of the authorities. Manger Square is a large, open expanse, the Church of the Nativity on one side. The Church is from the outside a rather forbidding building, although the atmosphere is gentle indeed compared to Hebron. Worshippers and tourists enter through a small door, not even head height, which was built initially as a defensive measure but now ensures one bows one’s head in reverence when approaching the birthplace of Jesus.
There has been a church here for an extremely long time, dating back to the Emperor Constantine’s mother who as a Christian took an interest in the site. There were oral traditions before that, recorded by second century writers, that the cave now under the church was the actual place where the Holy Family rested. There is a fourth-century mosaic floor, rediscovered in 1934, of great beauty and clarity. The current buildings date to the early sixth century. But somehow the place spoke to me of the longevity of the Church rather than the presence of Christ. The administration of the building is, like that of the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, an inter-denominational mess.
Bethlehem is probably, because of Christian pilgrims, the most-visited place in the West Bank, and it is a happier, livelier and busier place for that. But it does suffer from the problems inflicted by the occupation of the West Bank. There was a nasty conflict here in 2002. There is a particularly crass section of the Wall near the town, which takes a long, thin detour to put Rachel’s Tomb on the far side of the barrier from the rest of the city. As in Hebron, a thriving tourist and pilgrimage centre was destroyed (see the OCHA OPT report, page 6).
Bethlehem also has its share of refugees. One such as is the Aida camp, a mere 7.34km from Jerusalem but separated by the Wall. It dates back to 1951 and is home to about 5,000 people. We arrived at Aida at dusk. The camp is hard by the Wall, and has suffered from conflict – during the second intifada in 2002 the windows of the UNRWA school there were blocked up because of Israeli gunfire. In 2009, during a Papal visit, the intention had been for Pope Benedict to speak to people from a platform in front of the ugly wall that dominates the local landscape, but the Israelis objected and alternatives had to be found.
The quality of the graffiti and wall-painting around Aida and Bethlehem is high, perhaps inspired by the fondness Banksy has for the area as well as the abundance of blank spaces. A lot of the themes are political, of course, but some are just about normal childhood.
Like Al-Amary in Ramallah, Aida is now a mazy urban neighbourhood with an air of permanence despite its temporary origins. The symbol of the key is everywhere in the refugee camps, signifying the keys that some families still have to the houses that were left behind in 1948 and the eventual hope of return. Aida has the biggest key in the world, and its gateway is an enormous keyhole.
While several broader territorial solutions seem practical, the problem of the refugees is a difficult one. Even if Israel was willing to readmit them en masse, which it never will be, many of the houses that go with the keys no longer exist. Many of the families of Aida come from places that have been demolished and forested or built over. In practical terms, it is a matter of fair restitution for the loss of their family homes and livelihoods rather than a return of 4 million descendants to places that 700,000 people lost in 1948. The situation of refugees based within the West Bank and Gaza is perhaps simpler than those in other places, because they are within what will surely become sovereign Palestinian territory. Although the refugee camps are easily to be distinguished from rich neighbourhoods, on the evidence of Al-Amary and Aida they are viable places with a fierce sense of community and a fair amount of ‘Big Society’ voluntarism. The problem is more in the camps in Lebanon, where Palestinians are foreigners and the need to preserve the delicate demographic and political structures of Lebanon has left them in limbo. Where can they go? And the West Bank, let alone Gaza, is already quite densely populated and its environment is under pressure.
It is worth remembering that these people were victims of a situation that was not of their causing, unlike the Sudeten, Prussian and Silesian Germans who were expelled in 1945-48, many of whom had been enthusiastic Nazis. Though miserable, their expulsion could be seen as necessary atonement from Germany for the cruelty and racism it had inflicted on other countries. It took a long time and a post-war economic miracle, for West Germany to integrate the expellees, and even now there is nostalgia for the lost regions. The Poles expelled from places such as Lwow when the USSR’s boundaries moved westwards in 1945 were compensated by property in the ex-German areas. Even now, Wroclaw has three identities – the place it has become in modern Poland, the repository of many of the Polish traditions of Lwow, and the shadow of German Breslau. But the people of the Palestinian refugee camps have not had vacant land in which to move, nor a national homeland that will embrace them, nor an economic miracle, nor a crime for which their status might seem even rough justice.