By Arlene Bridges Samuels
Each Christmas, we have the opportunity to rediscover the Gospel accounts that covey the most miraculous birth story ever recorded in history. After Mary and Joseph’s 80-mile trek from Nazareth, Mary gave birth to Jesus in the small town of Bethlehem. Located five-and-a-half miles south of Jerusalem, this town was the ancestral home of Joseph as well as the birthplace of King David. Early Christian traditions depict the birth of Jesus within a cave in Bethlehem. In A.D. 326, the Church of the Nativity was built over the traditional site of Jesus’ birthplace.
However, since the birth of Jesus over 2,000 years ago—with its angelic announcements, heavenly hosts praising God, and shepherds bowing down before their long-awaited Messiah—Bethlehem has experienced a far different kind of story. Today, Bethlehem’s normally bustling streets are empty due to the COVID-19 pandemic. The annual Christmas tree is lit in Manger Square, but thousands of pilgrims are not there for the joyous annual celebration. Businesses are suffering due to the lack of tourists, and Midnight Mass at the Church of the Nativity will take place online this year. Maryana al-Arja, owner of the 120-room Angel Hotel, sums up the bleak holiday with the comment: “Bethlehem is dead.”
Along with Bethlehem’s economic crisis, the pandemic—recorded by WorldoMeter for the Palestinian population at large—shows 125,506 cases, 1,198 deaths, and 101,355 recovered. The outlook is not hopeful, especially when we add in Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas’s rejection of the Abraham Accords. His cooperation could have led to countless benefits for Palestinians. Unfortunately, when the United Arab Emirates signed on in September 2020, Abbas immediately denounced the signing as a “despicable decision and a betrayal.” Palestinians have suffered under his dictator-like reign since 2005 with no elections in sight, although the presidency is supposed to be limited to a four-year term. The 85-year-old Abbas enjoys life in his multimillion-dollar mansion in Ramallah along with an estimated $100 million net worth. Nations have given billions to Palestinians, yet Abbas and other Palestinian Authority leaders continue to embezzle and/or misappropriate government funds at the expense of the wider population.
Bethlehem has seen repeated conflicts over the last century compounded with years of competing narratives between Jews and Palestinian Arabs. The 400-year occupation by the Ottoman Empire lasted until 1917—with the subsequent British occupation ending after the Jewish state was rebirthed in 1948. The Jewish town of Bethlehem increasingly enjoyed a thriving tourist trade that especially helped the many Arab-Christian businesses there. Then on December 21, 1995, Bethlehem came under the governance of the Palestinian Authority as mandated by the hopeful 1995 Oslo Accords. At that time, Yasser Arafat (1929-2004) led the Palestinian Liberation Organization (PLO) and continued to covertly mastermind his terrorist operation against Israel.
For Arab Christians living in Bethlehem, economic threats against them began to increase in the 1990s and then really accelerated in 1995 after the Oslo Accords turned Bethlehem over to Palestinian rule. The London Times wrote in 1997 that life in Palestinian Authority-ruled Bethlehem has become insufferable for many members of the dwindling Christian minorities. The article went on to say that increasing Muslim-Christian tensions have left some Christians reluctant to celebrate Christmas in the town at the heart of the story of Jesus’ birth.
The Muslim Palestinians stole money and land from Arab Christians, beat them, and refused to protect them from gangs and violence. In 1990, Bethlehem’s population included 23,000 Christians—a 60% majority. By 2001, they were a minority, having fled over the years due to persecution.
From 2000 to 2005, the Palestinian’s Second Intifada (uprising) triggered an avalanche of fear, terrorism, and sorrows for Jews. Statistics compiled by Shin Bet, Israel’s security service, show that 138 suicide attacks used numerous methods of terrorism, including stabbings and bombings on buses, in restaurants and nightclubs, and on the streets. When the Intifada ended, terrorists had murdered 1,038 Israelis. The International Institute for Counter-Terrorism lists 8,341 wounded Israelis—among them 5,676 civilians and 2,665 security forces.
As an example of the Palestinian mindset, Dr. Ahmad Abu Halabiya had preached a mosque sermon on October 13, 2000, shortly after the Second Intifada began. On live Palestinian Authority television, he asserted, “Allah the almighty has called upon us not to ally with the Jews or the Christians, not to like them, not to become their partners, not to support them, and not to sign agreements with them.”
I traveled to Israel twice during the Second Intifada, with just a few of us on the first trip and later a group of 40 Christians. Both trips were designed to express our friendship and desire to help. We purposely boarded buses, a frankly scary experience, not knowing if a suicide bomber would blow them up. Sitting on the buses, we would loudly proclaim, “We are Christians, and we are here to say we stand with you!” That brought many smiles from passengers and some even clapped.
Israelis have told me over the years that every Israeli knew someone who had been murdered or injured as a result of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. One friend shared how he had fought inner hatred toward terrorists when his teenagers took buses to their schools. He never knew if they would come home. It was stress on steroids for leaders, parents, children, and security forces in a Jewish population that for decades had only longed for and reached out repeatedly for peace.
Figures vary as to how many Palestinians died during the Second Intifada, based on which entities list them. Some say 3,189 deaths, mostly of terrorists. Afterward, Israel was forced to enact strategic defensive measures to stop terrorists—who at the time could simply walk into Jerusalem, Tel Aviv, or elsewhere wearing a suicide vest. As a heartbreaking example, a Hamas-affiliated suicide bomber lurked outside the Dolphinarium Discotheque in Tel Aviv murdering 21 Israelis, sixteen of them teenagers.
In Bethlehem in 2001, during the Second Intifada, terrorists committed the sacrilegious act of commandeering the Church of the Nativity. At this site, revered by Christians worldwide as the traditional location of Jesus’ birth, they took as hostages about 60 priests, monks, and nuns—Armenian, Roman Catholic, and Greek Orthodox—who lived and administrated the church compound. In the 39-day siege, the Israel Defense Forces (IDF) refused to enter the church so as not to damage or violate the Christian holy site. Numerous negotiations and encounters finally ended it. Afterward, priests told stories of terrorist beatings, intimidation, tearing up Bibles for toilet paper, and stealing valuable sacred objects. The outcry about the siege reverberated across the Christian world.
No checkpoints existed before the Intifada. But afterward they became a necessity, along with electronic fencing flanked by paved pathways, barbed-wire fences, and trenches. They included non-lethal shocks and video monitoring. Most anti-Israel activists protest the “Apartheid Wall,” which Israelis call the “Separation Wall.” It’s a handy photo op for protesters who claim that the wall totally encircles Bethlehem, imprisoning those who live there. It does not. One side of the structure was built in 2002 because Palestinian snipers were killing Jewish drivers along a major highway.
Despite the continual conflicts, Bethlehem is the burial place of Jacob’s beloved wife Rachel, the adopted home of Ruth the Moabite who married Boaz the Bethlehemite, and the birthplace of King David. These examples and many others authenticate the rich Jewish presence and heritage within this ancient town. The biblical significance of Bethlehem is undeniable.
In closing, Reverend Dr. Dean Haun, Senior Pastor of the First Baptist Church in Morristown, Tennessee, is authoring a book entitled The Christmas Prophecies. In it he shares the meaning of the town’s name, Bethlehem. “Its name comes from two Hebrew words. ‘Beit’ means ‘house.’ ‘Lechem’ means ‘bread.’ Together ‘Beit-lechem’ (Bethlehem) means the ‘House of Bread.’ Jesus declared in John 6:35: ‘I am the bread of life. He who comes to Me shall never hunger, and he who believes in Me shall never thirst.’ The Bread of Life was born in the House of Bread.”
This Christmas, let’s continue to pray for Israelis as Palestinian terror remains a serious threat, and let’s also pray for Arab Christians living in Bethlehem and other Palestinian areas:
- Pray for safety for Arab Christians who live in Bethlehem and other Palestinian-controlled towns.
- Pray with appreciation for the witness of Arab Christians who are diligently representing Jesus and the Gospel message to their neighbors.
- Pray for God’s continued protection over Israel as the entire populations still faces ongoing COVID-19 lockdowns.
- Pray for God’s love, peace, and mercy to be extended to the Palestinian people.
On this special day, as we celebrate the birth of the Messiah, let us reflect on these words found in the Book of Isaiah: “For to us a child is born, to us a son is given, and the government will be on his shoulders. And he will be called Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace” (Isaiah 9:6).
Arlene Bridges Samuels pioneered Christian outreach for the American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC). After she served nine years on AIPAC’s staff, International Christian Embassy Jerusalem USA engaged her as Outreach Director part-time for their project, American Christian Leaders for Israel. Arlene is now an author at The Blogs-Times of Israel and has traveled to Israel 25 times. She co-edited The Auschwitz Album Revisited by Artist Pat Mercer Hutchens and sits on the board of Violins of Hope South Carolina. Arlene has attended Israel’s Government Press Office Christian Media Summit three times and hosts her devotionals, The Eclectic Evangelical, on her website at ArleneBridgesSamuels.com.