Published: December 2007 Bethlehem 2007 A.D.
Bethlehem 2007 A.D.
The little town where Jesus was born is now one of the most contentious places on Earth.
By Michael Finkel
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. At the summit of Bethlehem's central hill is Manger Square, a cobblestoned plaza fronting the Church of the Nativity. The tallest and most prominent structure here is a mosque. Many of the gift shops are shuttered, relics of a more peaceful time. Tourism is low; religious pilgrims are shuttled in and out by guides—a quick stop at Manger Square, then a speedy departure down the hill and back out through the wall, returning to Jerusalem. Hotels are mostly empty. Few visitors spend the night. Unemployment in Bethlehem, by the mayor's estimate, is 50 percent, and many families are living from meal to meal.

The Church of the Nativity is almost hidden. It looks like a stone fortress, walls several feet thick, with a facade devoid of ornamentation. Perhaps this is why it has survived 14 centuries: Bethlehem is no place for delicate architecture. A spot at the crossroads of the world—the busy intersection of Europe, Asia, and Africa—means a perpetual rush hour of invading armies. The church has endured conquests by Persian, Byzantine, Muslim, Crusader, Mamluk, Ottoman, Jordanian, British, and Israeli forces. The entrance, reduced in size over the centuries, perhaps to prevent access by travelers' horses and camels, has shrunk to a miniature hole. You nearly have to fold yourself in half to get through.

The interior of the church, cool and dark, is as spare as the outside; four rows of columns in an open nave lead to the main altar. There are no pews, just a collection of cheap folding chairs. But beneath the altar, down a set of worn limestone steps, is a small cave. In the rural areas of Bethlehem, today as it was 2,000 years ago, grottoes are used as livestock pens. Mangers are carved out of rock. Here, in the bull's-eye of this volatile place, ringed by Jewish settlements, imprisoned within a wall, encircled by refugee camps, hidden amid a forest of minarets, tucked below the floor of an ancient church, is a silver star. This, it's believed, is where Jesus was born.

Some of the people you meet around Bethlehem quote from the Bible, some recite from the Koran, some chant from the Torah. Some show you their fields, some point to their olive groves; some invoke history, some envision the future. Some pray with knees on the ground, some with foreheads on the ground, some with feet firmly planted but with torsos turning and swaying. Some throw stones and some drive tanks and some wrap themselves with explosives. But when you get right down to it, when you boil away the hatred and the politics and the wars that have shaken the planet, the one thing most people are talking about, when it comes to Bethlehem, is land. A tiny scrap of land. A wind-scoured, water-starved, rock-strewn bit of ground.

The Jews got here first. That's what the rabbi says. Rabbi Menachem Froman lives in the Jewish settlement of Tekoa, perched on a mesa, a clean collection of bleached stone houses capped with red-tiled roofs, double strollers parked on several porches. Fifteen hundred people live here. From the north side of Tekoa, Froman can view all of Bethlehem; the Muslim call to prayer drifts over the settlement five times a day, steady as a train schedule. To the south are the bald brown knolls of the Judaean wilderness, where Jesus is thought to have fasted for 40 days, and the deep ravines that tumble down, down, down, falling below sea level—even the terrain here seems to defy reason—and then plunging still, to Earth's lowest point, the Dead Sea.

"This is not just land," says Froman, his long white beard spilling from his chin, unruly as a river rapid. "This is the Holy Land. There's no oil, no gold, no diamonds. It's a desert! But this is God's palace." Froman is 62 years old; he can count back 17 generations of rabbis in his family. He's the 18th. His son is also a rabbi. He was born in what is now Israel but was then, during World War II, known as the British Mandate for Palestine (the British began governing the region in 1922, following the collapse of the Ottoman Empire). After World War II, in the wake of the Holocaust, the United Nations voted to partition the region into two states—one Jewish, one Arab. Jews accepted the plan, Arabs did not. Fighting between Arabs and Jews began even before Israel declared independence, in 1948, and the ensuing war resulted in about 750,000 Palestinians fleeing their native villages, many of them forced to do so by the Israeli army. Many relocated to the West Bank of the Jordan River, administered by Jordan, or the Gaza Strip, governed by Egypt. These were the first Palestinian refugees.

Then, in 1967, Israel defeated the military forces of Egypt, Jordan, Syria, Iraq, and Lebanon in six chaotic days and occupied, among other lands, the West Bank, a place many Israelis refer to by its biblical name, Judaea and Samaria. This initiated the settlement movement—Jews establishing homesites throughout the newly won territory.

Froman was one of the first to go. He believes, as do many settlers, that the Jews' deed to Judaea and Samaria is spelled out in the Old Testament. They are the landlords. Froman therefore feels he has the right, granted from God, to live here. In the district of Bethlehem, which includes the city and neighboring villages, there are about 180,000 Palestinians, of whom 25,000 or so are Christian (virtually all living in urban Bethlehem and two satellite towns, Beit Jala and Beit Sahur). Woven into this map are 22 Jewish settlements, with a population approaching 80,000, and at least a dozen more frontier-style squatter encampments known as outposts, often no more than a ring of dilapidated mobile homes, like Conestoga wagons around a campfire.

Just looking out his window in Tekoa, Froman sees why everyone craves a piece of this land. For Jews still awaiting their Messiah, Froman says it's possible that he will arrive right here, in the eroded backcountry of Bethlehem, the presence of God palpable in the desert's sandpaper wind. For Christians anticipating their Messiah's return, why shouldn't he come back to the spot he was born? Muslims do not believe in a messiah—there is only Allah, only God—but Palestinian Muslims also revere this land as sacred, since Jesus is one of their prophets. Also Bethlehem and the surrounding West Bank, as well as the Gaza Strip and Jerusalem, are where they hope to establish a viable homeland.

The United Nations, the European Union, and the International Court of Justice have declared the Israeli settlements illegal, a violation of the Geneva Convention that prohibits occupying powers from allowing its citizens to populate the territory it occupies. The Israeli government, though, provides easy loans to those seeking houses in West Bank settlements. One of the largest in the Bethlehem area is called Har Homa. Its gleaming high-rises stand so close to Bethlehem—just across the wall—that it seems as if you could hold your arm out on a Palestinian street corner and hail a cab in Har Homa. It has become a full-fledged suburb, with 2,000 Israelis. About half of all settlers consider themselves nonreligious, and real estate ads in Har Homa, plastered on numerous billboards, stress the town's secular advantages. Reasonable prices; great location; such an easy commute to Jerusalem! Har Homa exemplifies an Israeli strategy known as "facts on the ground": The more Jews who live in a concentrated area on the east side of the so-called Green Line—the armistice line established in 1949 following Israel's war of independence—the more likely the area will become part of Israel if the region is divided into two countries. Palestinians still refer to Har Homa by its original name, Jabal Abu Ghuneim—in Arabic, "mountain of the shepherd." It used to be one of the last open spaces in Bethlehem, a pine-shaded hillside where shepherds tended their flocks, and had done so since biblical times. Construction began in 1997; the land was shaved flat and stacked with apartment towers. Not one Palestinian who owned acreage was compensated. Its new name means "walled mountain" in Hebrew. The settlements are designed to feel like safe, suburban oases, but they are not. The presence of settlers, so close to Palestinian towns, makes them a target of particularly fierce enmity. Stones once shattered car windshields so often that many settlers replaced the glass in their vehicles with rock-resistant plastic. Before the wall was built, stray bullets, fired from below, sometimes burst into homes. In the settlement of Efrat, a few hills over from Tekoa, one suicide bomber detonated his bomb inside the medical center. Another was shot to death as he was about to blow himself up in the settlement's supermarket. He was killed not by a soldier but by a settler.

"Our children have been to more funerals than most people have been to in their whole lives," says Sara Bedein, a mother of six who lives in Efrat. "All my kids have friends, neighbors, classmates who have been killed." Bedein wears a bright scarf on her head—Orthodox Jewish women, like traditional Muslims, do not display their hair in public. She says that, after one school-bus bombing tore off the legs of three young students and killed two teachers, her daughter and schoolmates began sitting cross-legged on the bus, believing it would reduce the chance of losing limbs in an attack. And yet, if you ask Bedein why her family doesn't move out of the occupied territory, she answers immediately and unequivocally: "We love it here." She loves the views, the mountain air, the settlers' tight sense of community.

Many settlers keep sidearms strapped to their waists, sheriffs in their own Wild West. Some even carry weapons to synagogue, and while praying, while raising their arms, beseeching God, it's clear that any protection they seek is not solely divine: There is the unmistakable glint of a handgun snapped into a holster.

When Seth Mandell takes a short walk in the wilderness, he carries his nine-millimeter Glock in a fanny pack. Mandell lives in Tekoa, a couple of streets away from Rabbi Froman. His hike has become a ritual of grief. He works his way down a steep, slippery trail, speckled with scarlet wildflowers, bursts of color in the dun desertscape. A few doves circle above. Doves in the sky; olive branches beneath.

Mandell is heading toward a small grotto, a tranquil spot where, he says, monks have come to meditate since the fifth century. No surprise that a 13-year-old boy was inspired to explore. The boy was Koby Mandell, Seth's son. He cut school one day, in May 2001, with his 14-year-old friend Yosef Ishran, also from Tekoa. They hung out in this low-ceilinged cave. Perhaps they sat in the cool shade and looked out the entrance: a spectacular view of a rocky canyon, the walls dropping sere and still into a dry riverbed below.

When night fell and the boys had not returned home, searches were initiated. Soldiers arrived. The next morning, Koby and Yosef were found in the cave. They had been bludgeoned to death with stones. The walls of the cave were smeared with their blood. Next to the bodies lay their lunch bags, with uneaten sandwiches and bottles of water. The killers were never caught. The pain Seth Mandell feels when he walks down here seems to emanate from him like heat waves off a sidewalk. But Mandell says that he and his family—his wife and their three other children—have no plans to leave. He says what Rabbi Froman says. He says what many settlers say. His connection to this land is spiritually, emotionally, and culturally profound. "Leaving," he says, "would be leaving a part of myself behind." One thousand years before Christ was born, Bethlehem was known as the City of David. It was the birthplace of King David, a Jewish leader who earned his esteem through a famous fight: He defeated Goliath, striking him dead with a stone flung from his sling. The giant, whose height, according to the Old Testament, "was six cubits and a span"—about ten feet (3 meters)—was a member of the Philistine people, ancient enemy of the Jews. From the word "Philistine" has derived the current Palestinian, though the two are linked only etymologically, not by blood.

Though rarely in power, the Jews were the most populous group in the region for centuries. But by the first century A.D., following a series of ineffective rulers and defeats by the Roman army, they were cast out of the Holy Land. For the next 2,000 years, the Jews scattered throughout the world—the Diaspora—but they never stopped praying for a return to their native soil.

In the meantime, Christianity rose to prominence. It seems a fluke that Jesus was born in Bethlehem—after all, he's Jesus of Nazareth, a town 90 miles (140 kilometers) to the north. Some archaeologists and theological historians have their doubts about many of the details of the Christmas story, including that Jesus was born in Bethlehem of Judaea. There is a small village, also called Bethlehem, located closer to Nazareth, where some believe Jesus was actually born. (In Hebrew, the name Bethlehem means "house of bread," and could refer to almost any place with a flour mill.)

But according to the New Testament, in the Book of Luke, the Roman emperor at the time, Caesar Augustus, was conducting a census that required all people to return to their hometowns to register. Joseph was a descendant of King David, and even though his wife was nearing the end of her pregnancy, they completed the journey to Bethlehem. Famously, the Book of Luke relates, "there was no room for them in the Inn," so Jesus was born amid the livestock, perhaps in the grotto over which the Church of the Nativity was eventually built.

Judaea's ruler, King Herod, was so disturbed by reports that a new king and potential rival had been born that, according to the Book of Matthew, he sent troops to kill all boys under age two. Mary and Joseph escaped with Jesus to Egypt, but thousands of children were reported to have been slaughtered. By the fourth century, Christianity was the official religion of the Roman Empire, and Bethlehem swiftly became one of its holiest sites. In 326, Helena, the mother of the first Christian emperor, Constantine, traveled to Bethlehem and shortly thereafter her son commissioned the construction of the original Church of the Nativity. (It was destroyed during a riot 200 years later, but was promptly rebuilt. The second version, finished in the mid-sixth century, still stands.)

Helena's visit and a flow of imperial money sparked an influx of pilgrims, and soon there were dozens of monasteries in the nearby desert. Then the Muslims arrived. Early in the seventh century, a merchant named Muhammad, living in Mecca in what is now Saudi Arabia, heard a voice he believed to be that of the angel Gabriel tell him, "Recite." Muhammad com- mitted to memory the words that followed, and these revelations became the Koran, the Arabic word for "recitation." Within a century of Muhammad's death in 632, the religion he founded—Islam—had spread throughout the Middle East.

For centuries Bethlehem remained a Christian island in a steadily expanding Muslim sea. Palestinian refugees from the 1948 war brought even more Muslims to the area, but Bethlehem remained a majority Christian town. Then, in 1967, Israel's victory once again altered the city's complexion. Jewish settlers began moving into the occupied West Bank; Christians, who'd started fleeing to safer lands during World War II, accelerated their exodus; and Palestinian militants initiated attacks on military and civilian targets. In the same region where Jews once battled Philistines, it was now Israelis against Palestinians. In 3,000 years, the only change, it appears, is a couple of syllables. Before all semblance of normalcy was erased, the Al-Amal restaurant, just off Manger Square, was often filled with Jewish diners. They came for the falafel, seasoned with tahini and parsley, and the fresh shawarma sandwiches, the lamb meat tucked into a hot pita. Jews also came to shop in Bethlehem, known for producing the area's finest vegetables.

But the Israeli occupation felt, to Palestinians, like a series of humiliations—a proud people reduced to dependency on their hated foe, at the mercy of Israel's military law, denied an airport, and forced to pay taxes to the occupation authority. In 1987, after two decades of such treatment, an intifada, or uprising, was launched (the word literally translates as "shaking off"). Young Palestinians hurled stones at Israeli tanks, a modern version of David and Goliath, with the roles reversed.

The intifada pushed the two sides to the bargaining table, and the Oslo Accords were signed in 1993. But both Israelis and Palestinians felt the provisions were not honored by the other side. In 2000, a second Palestinian uprising began, this one more brutal. Settlers were repeatedly targeted; suicide bombers struck with increasing frequency. Israeli forces shelled Palestinian towns, and settlers attacked Palestinian villagers and farmers. Two years later, the Israelis began building the barrier. Now, the only Jews who regularly enter Bethlehem are soldiers, in armored vehicles, weapons at the ready.

The owner of Al-Amal restaurant is a 53-year-old Muslim named Omar Shawrieh, a short man with a trimmed beard and eyes weighed down by heavy bags. The most prominent decoration in his restaurant is a martyr's poster: a curly-haired young boy in a light-blue polo shirt. "He's wearing his school uniform," says Shawrieh. It's his son.

Last fall, the Israeli army entered Manger Square on a mission to apprehend a wanted militant. The soldiers traveled in a large convoy—a dozen armored jeeps and a platoon of troops. It was early afternoon. Mohammed Shawrieh, 13 years old, stopped by his father's restaurant to get money for a haircut. The soldiers' presence sparked the usual commotion; several people began throwing rocks at them, then the violence escalated and shots were fired.

Mohammed was curious, and he wandered across Manger Square. As soon as he noticed him missing, Omar panicked. "I ran to find my son," he says. "But they got to him before I got to him." Mohammed was shot in the side, a bullet piercing his liver. By the time he arrived at the hospital, he had bled to death.

The Israel Defense Forces acknowledge the boy was shot. "We were in the midst of a pinpoint operation, to arrest a most-wanted terrorist," says Aviv Feigel, a lieutenant colonel with the IDF. "It was very intense." Molotov cocktails and grenades, says Feigel, were launched at the soldiers. A few were injured. So they fired back. "Maybe that boy was just watching," says Feigel. "Or maybe he was participating. We didn't investigate. It's a complicated situation; it's not a classic battlefield. With them, everyone is in civilian clothes." Mohammed Shawrieh was buried the next day in a cemetery outside Bethlehem, in the shadow of an almond tree. This was followed by a demonstration and the wide distribution of his martyr's poster. Later, a plaque was placed at the spot he was shot, near the Church of the Nativity, just outside the crypts where bones of the children killed by King Herod, some 2,000 years ago, are believed to be kept. The blame game is cyclical. Omar Shawrieh, of course, faults the heavy-handed tactics of the Israeli army; their quickness to shoot, their disregard for Palestinian lives. The Israeli army says that if terrorists weren't trying to kill them, then soldiers would not have entered Manger Square in the first place. Since the start of the first intifada, more than 5,600 Palestinians and 1,200 Israelis have been killed.

Moderates do exist in the region, thousands of Jews, Muslims, and Christians who wish to forge bonds and work for peace. But the circumstances in Bethlehem are so fraught that even the most minor efforts—an Arab village attempting to sell produce to an Israeli town; the local Palestinian university trying to host a Jewish lecturer—are stymied by the ugly realities. Interactions between Palestinians and Israelis have mainly been reduced to brief exchanges at fortified checkpoints; often the Israeli soldiers are sealed inside bulletproof booths, the glass so thick the soldiers appear blurred.

No place harbors more frustration than the refugee camps, where families who were uprooted from their homes when Israel became a nation still live—generation after generation stuck in a stateless limbo. Ask where they're from, and they'll tell you the name of a town that's likely been erased from Israel's map, and speak in elegiac tones of its crystalline waters and verdant fields. Some display sets of rusty keys that once unlocked houses their parents or grandparents lived in before Israel existed.

"Everybody in camp hates the Jews," says 28-year-old Adel Faraj, the owner of a tiny shop in the Duheisha Camp, at the base of the Bethlehem hills. More than 10,000 people live in the camp's half-square-mile block. The camp's alleys, tight as slot canyons, are a collage of militant graffiti. Children run amid shattered glass. Sewage trickles down open gutters. At least two suicide bombers have come from Duheisha, one of them a young woman.

Faraj sells toiletries and lamps and compact discs. He has a narrow face and curly hair, which he likes to gel, and expressive eyes canopied with dark brows. He keeps a water pipe, called a narghile, in his shop and smokes apple-flavored tobacco throughout the day. "If a Jew came walking into this camp, he'd be killed. With a rock. Or a knife. Or a gun. It doesn't matter who he was. A Jew is a Jew," says Faraj.

"My friend was a suicide bomber," he continues, exhaling, filling his store with smoke. Faraj's friend was Mohammad Daraghmeh, 18 years old, who blew himself up in March 2002 next to a synagogue in Jerusalem, killing 11, including two infants and a toddler in a stroller. As Faraj speaks, he puts a CD in his boom- box. It's Bob Marley. The first track plays: "Is This Love?"

"I'm proud of him," says Faraj of his suicide bomber friend. "He did something great. The Israelis have forced us into this situation. They have left us with nothing. And when you have nothing, you have nothing to lose." At two o'clock in the morning most weekdays, several hundred men who do have something to lose—wives, children—begin lining up on the Bethlehem side of the wall. They're seeking work in Israel proper. They stand inside a long steel cage, like a cattle chute, waiting to be searched and prodded and fingerprinted and metal-detected. Some are told to strip. The process can take more than two hours. To be allowed through the checkpoint, you must be married and have one or more children. This, the Israeli army hopes, will ensure the laborers' return.

Many of the men are construction workers—often in the settlements. They wait in line for hours to build houses for their enemies on land that used to belong to them. They're paid $35 a day. Then they return home through the wall.

"Do you think we want to do this?" says one of the men, 35-year-old Sufian Sabateen. He holds a paper bag containing hummus and bread. He's smoking an L&M cigarette. His face, lit harshly by the klieg lights of the wall, is stoic. It's an hour before dawn. Sabateen insists he'd gladly work in Bethlehem for half the salary, but there are no jobs. This is how he describes his week: "From the mattress to work, from work to the mattress. My life is no life."

The wall, Palestinians say, suffocates an entire population for the actions of a small minority. They believe it is an Israeli attempt to establish a new national border, sealing onto the Israeli side all the choicest cuts from the land they occupied in 1967—the settlement areas, the scarce water sources, the fertile fields. The city of Bethlehem is being pinched into a seven-square-mile box, surrounded by a barrier on three sides.

As the wall continues to grow, giant digging machines, protected by armed guards, claw into the earth day and night. When completed, it will extend 450 miles (720 kilometers), sometimes dipping as far as 15 miles (24 kilometers) into West Bank territory, claiming 10 percent of Palestinian land for Israeli settlers. The Israeli government says its goal is only to protect Israeli lives, not to redraw the border, and as soon as there's a sweeping shift in Palestinian policy toward Israel, the wall will be destroyed and the confiscated land returned. The Israeli government doesn't even call it a wall. It prefers the term "security fence," and in most places in the West Bank it is indeed a network of electrified chain-link fences and coils of barbed wire. But not in Bethlehem. The wall around much of Bethlehem is taller than the barriers used in Israeli prisons.

The Israeli government says the wall is working. The second intifada brought wave after wave of suicide bombings, striking throughout Israel, killing scores of civilians and soldiers. Starting in 2003, with construction of the wall proceeding at top speed, and with intensified military checkpoints, patrols, and intelligence, the number of attacks drastically declined. "Our life was hell," says Ronnie Shaked, an Israeli journalist. "Caf╠ęs were blowing up; buses were blowing up. But no longer. The wall is very important—it's protecting us. Thank God there is a wall."

But Palestinian leaders argue the wall has little to do with the reduction in suicide attacks. The bombings have stopped, they say, because the major militant groups, including Hamas, proclaimed a ban on them, in the hope of restarting peace talks. A concrete wall can't stop someone who's willing to die, many Palestinians say, and if militant groups wanted, they could send a suicide bomber into Jerusalem every hour of the day. The most powerful politician in Bethlehem sees it another way. Salah Al-Tamari, the governor of the Bethlehem district, views the wall as a psychological ploy. "The Israelis want to provoke us; they want us to lose our minds," he says. "They want us to leave." The governor believes that the Israelis have purposely created such unlivable conditions in hopes that everyone will flee. Then they can have the land to themselves.

"Well, they can't have it," says Al-Tamari. He predicts the opposite will occur: The Israelis will eventually lose. The governor claims that simple demographics strongly favor the Palestinians. Muslim Palestinians on average have more children per family than Israeli Jews. "Their nuclear weapon," as one Israeli soldier puts it, "is the womb." By 2010 the number of Jews and Palestinians in Israel and the occupied territories will be about equal. After that, the Palestinians will have the majority.

"I will stay here, and my children will stay here," says Al-Tamari. "I'm a believer in the future. The wall will fall and the occupation will end—maybe in 10 years, maybe 50. We don't know when, but we do know one thing: We are staying here, on our land. No matter what." Bethlehem may be where Christianity began, but today its Christian residents are in a precarious spot. Israelis see them as Palestinian. Muslims see them as Christian. They see themselves, alternately, as lifesaving buffers or double-sided punching bags. Bernard Sabella, a Christian sociologist and member of the Palestinian Parliament, says the Christian community may be all that's keeping the whole area from a blood-soaked implosion. The mere presence of Christians seems to reduce the scale of violence in the city: Israeli soldiers tread with caution around Christian holy sites. The last thing Israel needs is to incur the wrath of the world's Christians by damaging a revered church.

And yet Bethlehem's Christians feel increasingly like outsiders in their own city. Many dress in current Western fashion—tight jeans, plunging necklines, flashy jewelry. On Saturday nights, teenagers head to Cosmos, one of the only discos in the West Bank, where tequila shots are passed around and there is (somewhat) dirty dancing. Though some Muslims dress in modern styles, most Islamic women in Bethlehem wear head scarves, and others wear jilbobs, long, loose-fitting coverings designed to hide all curves. Drinking alcohol, for both sexes, is not acceptable in public. Social mingling between Christians and Muslims is infrequent, and interfaith marriages are almost nonexistent. Still, Christians and Muslims do work side by side at government offices, hospitals, schools, and charitable organizations.

At the checkpoints, Christians are treated like all other Bethlehem residents: with extreme suspicion. Even the mayor, Victor Batarseh—Bethlehem's mayor, by city ordinance, must be Christian—is not allowed to remain on the Israeli side of the wall past 7 p.m. "It's degrading," says Batarseh. "If I'm invited to cocktails in Jerusalem, I can't go because I don't have permission." He is 73 years old.

Bernard Sabella estimates that, because of the conflict, more than 3,000 Christians have fled in the past seven years. "It's not sheer numbers," says Sabella, "it's the type of people. Who is emigrating? The educated, the rich, the politically moderate, young families. Those who are best able to change the situation are leaving. Those who are unskilled, without education, or politically radical can't get visas." "We are unable to survive here," says the patriarch of a Christian family who asked that their name not be mentioned. In Bethlehem, he says, the local government is essentially a puppet of the Israeli army—the police and the courts have little authority, a situation that affects all residents, including Muslims. The real power in Bethlehem is controlled by extended families, and the most powerful clans are Muslim. Some in Bethlehem say privately they wish the Israelis would simply take over the city.

"Christians are afraid that if we speak frankly and Muslim families hear, we'll be persecuted," says the patriarch. "We'll be forced to pay a lot of money. And physical things, of course, are possible. Arson. Anything you can think of." His family lives in a hosh, a traditional group of houses built around a courtyard. They've been in Bethlehem so long they're mentioned in the Old Testament. They were here before Christ. "There's actually a Jewish branch of the family in Jerusalem," he says. "We separated about 2,000 years ago, when some of the family decided to follow Christ's teachings."

Now he's thinking of leaving. He has a sister in California and four brothers in Honduras. "Our family," he says, "will be entirely gone from the Holy Land for the first time since Christ. And I'll sell my hosh to Muslims. They'll consider it a victory—another one off the Christians! How can the Christian world accept this?"

Fifty years ago, there were just a handful of mosques in the Bethlehem district. Now there are close to a hundred. "My soul lives in Bethlehem," he says. "I'm like a fish—this is my water. Take me out, and I wither and die. But I'm afraid of the future. Can you imagine Bethlehem without any Christians? You better start imagining it, because in a few years, it might be reality."

The Christians themselves are not immune to infighting. Literally every square foot of the Church of the Nativity is battled over by the three sects that share use of the church: Greek Orthodox, Roman Catholic, and Armenian Orthodox. The holy men of the three denominations bicker over who gets to clean which sacred wall, who can walk in which aisle. The guards in the church, it sometimes seems, are not there to protect tourists but to keep priests from attacking each other. "Apart from Christ," says Father Ibrahim Faltas, a Franciscan friar who served in the Church of the Nativity for 12 years, "there have been few here who would turn the other cheek."

They can't even agree on Christmas in Bethlehem. What date is the holy day celebrated at the Church of the Nativity? The Greek Orthodox priests, who have a slight majority interest in the control of the church, rely for ecclesiastical purposes on the Julian calendar, which has a 13-day lag from the current Gregorian calendar. So their Christmas Mass is on January 6. The Bethlehem Christmas Eve service televised worldwide on December 24 actually takes place in the much newer St. Catherine's Church, run by the Roman Catholics, adjacent to the Church of the Nativity. And just to make things more complex, the Armenians celebrate Christmas in their wing of the church on January 18. So Christmas comes but thrice a year in Bethlehem.

But no matter your version of Christianity—or even if you're not religious at all—there seems to be something significant to the cave beneath the church floor, with its odor of incense and candle wax, lit by a string of bare bulbs. Visitors from all over the world descend the 14 steps into the earth. Many drop involuntarily to their knees. They pray, sing, weep, and faint at the Nativity spot. It happens all day, every day.

The air in that grotto, dank and musty, has the smell of history. The conflicts played out in Bethlehem are capable of transcending borders—the future of millions of people, after all, is at stake. A major breakdown could engulf much of the globe. "It's easy to think of Bethlehem as the center of the world," says Mayor Batarseh. "This can't be a place where calm never exists. If the world is ever going to have peace, it has to start right here."