As we prepare to celebrate the birth of Christ in a manger in a ‘little town of Bethlehem’ as the carol says, Peter Bray, former director of the Wellington Catholic Education Centre, reminds us that Bethlehem is today, as it was in Jesus’ day, under military occupation, in political turmoil and, in addition, surrounded by a prison wall.
Br Peter, who is the new vice chancellor of the University of Bethlehem, run by his order, the De La Salle Brothers in a joint venture with the Vatican, says he has experienced in his first few weeks in Bethlehem what Jimmy Carter calls ‘Apartheid’.
‘I think back to what New Zealand did to protest the situation in South Africa and particularly what happened in 1981 with the Springbok tour.
‘I think I have seen some things here that are worse than what I understand happened in South Africa and yet there is not a whimper from New Zealand about what is happening here.’
Br Peter says as a result of ‘extraordinarily efficient’ propaganda from Israel, the message going out internationally from Israel is very biased and does not represent what is happening on the ground.
Br Peter writes of the hassles his colleagues have simply trying to live a normal life. Their movement is so restricted and humiliating that they are continually reminded of the occupation.
‘One man, who had to travel some 30 kilometres up to Ramallah to the north, spent seven hours travelling through, and being delayed at, checkpoints just to attend a short meeting.
‘The amazing thing is that all the roads he was on were Palestinian roads within the West Bank but controlled by the Israelis.’
Br Peter visited a graduate of Bethlehem University who is farming ancestral land on the top of a hill surrounded on all other hills by Israeli settlements.
‘The Israeli military are trying to force him off the land so further settlements can be built.’
He is developing the land and using the space on which to teach other Palestinians how to work and retain the land. During his time at Bethlehem University, he learnt to take a stand for justice and find creative ways to deal with the pressure.
Caritas Board chair, Fr Gerard Burns, agrees with the use of the term ‘Apartheid’ which he says has been widely debated. Bishop Desmond Tutu of South Africa has also used it as have other South African activists who have visited the region.
‘In some ways the situation is different (Israel is now not dependent on the Palestinians as a work force in the way white South Africa was), in some ways it’s worse (black South Africans didn’t get strafed or bombed by F-16s in the way Palestinians do).’
Meanwhile, a conference of more than 200 Christians from five continents last month commemorated the tragic events that occurred 60 years ago in the lives of the people of Palestine.
Jewish and Muslim communities say they have also witnessed injustices visited on the Palestinian population with more than 531 villages depopulated and destroyed and more than 750,000 refugees not allowed to return to their homes since 1948.
Images: Top Br Peter Bray
Above right: Israel has installed metal turnstiles to monitor movement in and out of several checkpoints, like Huwwara checkpoint shown here. Palestinians frequently get stuck between the bars when soldiers either 'forget' to push the button before leaving or the electricity goes out.