Published: December 2007

Bethlehem 2007 A.D.

Bethlehem Feature

Bethlehem 2007 A.D.

The little town where Jesus was born is now one of the most contentious places on Earth.

By Michael Finkel
Photograph by Christopher Anderson
This is not how Mary and Joseph came into Bethlehem, but this is how you enter now. You wait at the wall. It's a daunting concrete barricade, three stories high, thorned with razor wire. Standing beside it, you feel as if you're at the base of a dam. Israeli soldiers armed with assault rifles examine your papers. They search your vehicle. No Israeli civilian, by military order, is allowed in. And few Bethlehem residents are permitted out—the reason the wall exists here, according to the Israeli government, is to keep terrorists away from Jerusalem.

Bethlehem and Jerusalem are only six miles apart (ten kilometers), though in the compressed and fractious geography of the region, this places them in different realms. It can take a month for a postcard to go from one city to the other. Bethlehem is in the West Bank, on land taken by Israel during the Six Day War of 1967. It's a Palestinian city; the majority of its 35,000 residents are Muslim. In 1900, more than 90 percent of the city was Christian. Today Bethlehem is only about one-third Christian, and this proportion is steadily shrinking as Christians leave for Europe or the Americas. At least a dozen suicide bombers have come from the city and surrounding district. The truth is that Bethlehem, the "little town" venerated during Christmas, is one of the most contentious places on Earth.

If you're cleared to enter, a sliding steel door, like that on a boxcar, grinds open. The soldiers step aside, and you drive through the temporary gap in the wall. Then the door slides back, squealing on its track, booming shut. You're in Bethlehem.

The city, at the scrabbly hem of the Judaean desert, is built over several broad, flat-topped hills, stingy with vegetation. The older homes are made of pale yellow stone, wedged along steep, narrow streets. A couple of battered taxis ply the roads, drivers heavy on the horns. At an outdoor stall, lamb meat rotates on a spit, dripping fat. Men sit on plastic chairs and sip from small glasses of thick Arabic coffee. There's an odor of uncollected garbage. As you work your way up the hill, you can see the scope of the wall and chart its ongoing expansion—a gray snake, segmented by cylindrical guard towers, methodically constricting the city.

Inside the wall, along Bethlehem's borders, are three Palestinian refugee camps, boxy apartments heaped atop one another in haphazard piles. Every breeze through the camps' alleys ruffles the corners of hundreds of martyrs' posters—young men, staring impassively, some gripping M-16s. Many are victims of the Israel Defense Forces. Others have blown themselves up in an Israeli mall or restaurant or bus. Arabic text on the posters extols the greatness of these deeds.

Just outside the wall, dominating the surrounding high points and ridges, are sprawling Jewish settlements, skewered with construction cranes, feverishly growing. Late in the afternoon the sun glints off the settlement buildings and Bethlehem seems circled by fire.
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