This is a report from Israeli friends into the worrying growth of IS in the Palestinian Authority.
This year in the Judean city of Bethlehem Christmas was a major flop and unfortunately there was a more sinister reason for it. The city where Christians believe Jesus was born is usually buzzing at this time of year for the Christmas and new year season with celebrations involving pilgrims, tourists and the remaining Christians still living in the holy city.
Bethlehem has a population of around 30000 and the neighbouring towns of Beit Jala and Beit Sahour ,also known as Shepherds Fields 11000 and 12000 respectively. When the municipality was handed over to the Palestinian Authority in 1995 after the signing of the Oslo Accords, Bethlehem was 85 percent Christian. Even by 2007 Beit Jala was 70 percent Christian and Beit Sahour 80 percent.
Now only eight percent of the whole municipality including the two outlying towns is Christian and indeed two percent in the so called West Bank. This is a massive turnaround in religious demography and on which should not be ignored. It may be within ten years that there will be an almost exclusively muslim population with the Nativity Church a token reminder of Christianity and a site for foreign pilgrims.
There is an economic and religious squeeze being put on those Christians who wish to remain in the city of their birth. Since the Second Intifada in 2000 Israelis are no longer allowed into Bethlehem as it is designated Area A , under Palestinian control. This has taken a huge slice of investment from the city, especially the smaller businesses. With this , there has been a change in the style of visitors and pilgrims to Christian sites. Almost all tourists will either come to Bethlehem on a day trip and stay in Jerusalem or if they do stay in Bethlehem will use one of the large hotels which are now owned by muslim businessmen. There is an air of hostility in Bethlehem, certainly for the local Christian population but also those coming to visit from abroad are more inclined to follow the trip itinerary and dine inside the hotels . Small businesses are almost exclusively reliant on those tourists who may decide to enter by the checkpoint on the north of Bethlehem or by 231 bus via Bet Jala. At the moment this number has been in steady decline from the end of Second Intifada in 2002.
There is a growing impression that Bethlehem has become increasingly hostile, more so to resident Christians, than tourists who have until now been left alone and only subjected to aggressive sales techniques by local vendors and the increasingly desperate taxi drivers / ad hoc tour guides. There is a large influx of Arab Muslims from the nearby city of Hevron which has greatly changed the demographics of the municipality. Hevron is a city of around 215,000 where arguably the most radical of Arabs live aside 1000 Jewish residents mostly in the Tel Hevron and Avraham Aveinu neighbourhood. In the recent peak of violence in Israel around six out of every ten terror attacks were perpetrated by residents of the Hevron area. Whilst the Mayor of Hevron, Daoud Al Atari is a Fatah politician, it is widely accepted that Hamas is the political powerhouse in the Hevron area and are slowly gaining a foothold in the Bethlehem municipality also.
A Bethlehem Christian source told me of the increasing threat from Hamas over a year ago and more recently of the emergence of terror cells linked to IS or Daesh. I was sceptical of this but this was confirmed by the arrest of at least four operatives by the Palestinian Authority security forces leading up to the Christmas and New Year celebrations. As well as the four Daesh terrorists there were another twelve terrorists linked to various Islamic terror groups such as Islamic Jihad. This was a bid to prevent any terror attacks on foreign nationals especially at the peak of the tourist trade . I am reliably informed that Palestinian Authority security services visited refugees in Camp Aida warning them not to create problems during the Christmas period but would be indifferent to the resumption of almost daily attacks on Jewish worshipers visiting Rachel’s Tomb or IDF soldiers close to the security wall. Indeed, the almost exclusively Muslim refugees have targeted Christian businesses close to the checkpoint area with the P.A authorities unable or unwilling to clamp down on them. The failure of the P.A. security services to prevent attacks on worshipers at Rachel’s Tomb and Christian businesses has resulted in the IDF having to enter the area via the access gate in the security wall separating the Bethlehem and Jerusalem municipalities to quell the disturbances.
There is almost a daily riots by young Arabs mostly, but not entirely, from the refugee camps in the area closest to the security wall. This happens particularly after darkness and escalated almost in tandem with the spike in terror attacks within Israel in recent months in which some commentators saw as a Third Intifada, without the coordination of the previous two. I have witnessed on every visit to Bethlehem this lethal cat and mouse game played out between young rioters, the impotent P.A forces and the Israel Defence Forces.
I was there five years ago and the city was buzzing at Christmas, trade was brisk and hoteliers reported in many instances a full house and the vast number of restaurants had a no vacancies sign. This year was a major turnaround with hotels reporting a forty percent occupancy rate and many even lower. Some guest houses had zero occupancy and the one I stayed in, close to the checkpoint area, I was the only guest. The owner told me their website had been hacked for second year in row and bookings and orders from their craft shop cancelled without explanation as well as radical Islamic slogans spread on their site. In fact, so bad was the situation that the wife of the owner and mother of four children, had spent Christmas in United States trying to drum up business for the long suffering family. They had their signage broken by youths from the refugee camp in a recent more sinister attack. These instances were far from isolated and many business owners and families told me that they were visited by sinister elements purporting to be from Hamas warning them not to be having any parties or public events as it would be frowned upon in light of recent terrorist deaths aligned to the terror grouping. In the square the event was largely scaled down and it was obvious that most local Christians had decided to avoid the public event, closed their doors and preferred the safety of their homes. There were also reports that many Christian friends and family members had decided not to travel from Israeli cities such as Nazareth and Haifa. I witnessed first hand that there was a vast reduction in tourists that braved the atmosphere to come to Manger Square. I would estimate that from the previous visit the crowd in the square was around seventy percent less. The streets were almost clear for traffic right to Manger Square where before it was gridlocked from just after the Paradise Hotel.
We need to ask ourselves how are we going to deal with this situation and what is driving out the Christians in Bethlehem as well as what the future will hold for any Christmas in the municipality. I feel that many so called Christian organisations are fixated on the BDS movement and blaming Israel for the situation instead of dealing with the elephant in the room and that is the islamisation of Bethlehem. Christian Aid groups are not supporting financially or otherwise those Christians in the city and money which is sent is not being filtered in the right channels. They must stop the politicising of the plight of the Christians left as a tool to batter Israel. The situation lies squarely with the failure of the P.A to secure the future of its minorities and to prevent physical, economic and mental attacks on the population. There are hundreds of migrant workers who enter Israel each day subject to security checks and on religious holidays such as Ramadan there is free entry to Al Aqsa for those wishing to worship. Of course the security wall is not an ideal situation and has created economic hardship but was a necessary tactic to prevent the constant flow of murderous suicide bombers butchering innocent civilians in the Second Intifada.
It is imperative that Christian organisations around the world act now to support their brethren in the holy city and stop the incessant exodus from Bethlehem and surrounding towns to European countries and the United States. In as little as ten years there will be little or no Christians in the municipality and the sites of Manger Square and Church of the Nativity will be little more of a symbolic image in a totally Muslim city or may even become the focus of attacks such as those on Josephs tomb near the city of Nablus. This is a reality which is imminent unless some drastic measures be taken in very near future by Christians around the world in support of their beleaguered brothers and sisters.
Even since Christmas there has been continued violence particularly emanating from the Aida Refugee Camp and almost daily clashes. There was a very sinister development at 3pm on Saturday 23rd January of this year with a terrifying experience for Christian pilgrims staying at the plush Paradise Hotel in Bethlehem Star Street. There was a, clearly pre-organised, terrorist rally just yards from the hotel with tourists having to run a gauntlet of hate and intimidation. The most worrying aspect is that the Palestinian Authority police were either unable or unwilling to act against the rally which blocked main streets in both directions for over an hour. This is a very worrying situation if the PA are unable to guarantee the safety of potential foreign visitors and an escalation of things in Bethlehem to yet another level.