New stillness descends on Bethlehem, a result of sharpening conflict


BETHLEHEM, Israeli-occupied West Bank -- What the people of Bethlehem like to remember about this time of year are the crowds of Christian pilgrims arriving in such numbers that their buses double-park in Manger Square. They remember the big municipal Christmas tree and the chance for the West Bank's Christian community to bask in the limelight.

What people experience now is quite different. Instead of crowds, people remark upon the city's emptiness. The municipality gave up on decorating a tree. Since the Palestinian uprising began roughly four Christmases ago, all signs of celebration have been abandoned.

For Palestinian Christians, this has become a season less to celebrate than to think of the people who have chosen to move away and to wonder whether the community will survive.

"You see these Christian communities now, but they are slowly disappearing," said Bernard Sabella, a sociology professor at Bethlehem University. "Communities that have been here so long -- 2,000 years -- are on the road to somewhere else."

Palestinian Christians are participating in a slow exodus from the West Bank to safer havens, primarily the United States, a leave-taking that is depriving the West Bank of part of its educated and moneyed elite.

Their departure reflects the West Bank's steadily deteriorating economy, a decline that has accelerated since a recent series of Palestinian attacks against Israelis. Israel has responded by sealing off the West Bank and Gaza Strip for days at a time and thereby preventing more than 100,000 Palestinians employed in Israel from reaching their jobs.

A Christian exodus also hints at their uncertainty about the future because of the rising level of violence as Islamic fundamentalists take a larger role in directing the uprising. Part of the fundamentalists' program as announced in leaflets is to steer the revolt against Israel's occupation toward greater violence.

An apparent example of the new strategy occurred Dec. 10 when a bomb exploded outside a military headquarters on the outskirts of Bethlehem and killed an Israeli soldier. A chapter of Islamic Jihad claimed responsibility.

Five days later, three Israeli civilians were stabbed to death in a suburb of Tel Aviv. Hamas, a fundamentalist group sometimes in competition with the Palestine Liberation Organization for control the uprising, said it was responsible.

Everyone in Bethlehem was punished for the bomb that killed the soldier. For the first time, the military clamped a curfew on the entire town. If an exceptionally hardy tourist wanted to go to Manger Square and the Church of the Nativity, he would have found his way blocked by army patrols and barbed wire.

Everyone was punished again for the stabbings, even though Israeli authorities declared that residents of the Gaza Strip committed the crime. Soldiers at roadblocks turned back West Bank cars headed for Israel, again keeping people from their jobs.

Some people have been singled out for harsher punishment on the basis of previous political activism. While authorities have not said how many people will be affected, hundreds of Palestinians are being issued special identification cards barring them from Israel for periods of six months to a year.

Jad Issac, a resident of neighboring Beit Sahour, a Christian community, was issued one of the cards last week. In the early months of the uprising, he gained a certain amount of fame by being detained for six months after he taught fellow Palestinians to grow vegetables.

His new identification card bars him from Israel for six months, and he is one of 70 people from his community to get one. "We are miserable, but we are surviving," he said.

According to Mr. Sabella, it should be no surprise that the educated want to leave. "We prepare people to be social workers, educators, nurses, but what do you do with them?" he asked. "Except for maybe 1 percent, they have nothing."

Day by day, Bethlehem slides deeper into poverty. It's a city slowly collapsing on itself. Residents, deprived of regular work in Israel, have less money to spend and thus buy fewer goods. Merchants and the small factories, seeing sales drop, reduce the hours of their remaining work force or else close entirely. And income falls another notch.

People become more desperate and, being desperate, are less likely to condemn violence. When violence occurs, soldiers impose harsher measures. Income drops again, and the sense of desperation is richly fed.

According to Bethlehem Mayor Elias Freij, the hotels catering to the town's pilgrims have closed. So have all but four of the city's 80 restaurants. Municipal employees haven't been paid since October.

On Manger Square, in front of the church on the site of the place where, according to Christian tradition, Jesus was born, the only activity on a recent day was a soldier grabbing a teen-age student by the coat collar, dragging him for a few steps and emptying his book bag to search for stones or a possible bomb.

"If I were not mayor of Bethlehem, I wouldn't go out at all on Christmas," Mr. Freij told the Hebrew newspaper Ha'aretz. "There won't be anything in town except for a siege by hundreds of soldiers who won't let anyone move."

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