Young soldiers on the street of Bethlehem smile at the few tourists that had the courage to come visit the home of Christmas. So many questions came to my mind : Are those soldiers Israelis or Palestinians? If they are Palestinians, where are the Israelis? Palestinian teenagers will start throwing stones soon! Will the army respond with tear gas and real bullets also today…? No, it is Christmas’ Eve, this will not happen today…
13% of the people living in Bethlehem are Christians, but this number is higher in the neighboring villages of Beit Sahur and Beit Jala. The number of believers that celebrate Christmas is without a doubt less than the number of Jewish settlers that celebrated Hanukah in the West Bank only a few weeks ago. But lights are shining in the city, Muslim children beg their parents to buy them a Christmas tree, Palestinian from East Jerusalem, Nablus, Ramallah, but also Hebron are braving the many Israeli checkpoints on their way to reach Bethlehem, to see the lights; to be part of this unique and festive ceremony.
Is this coexistence, or being ‘between two swords’ as Palestinian Christians defined it to me? All Palestinians, despite of their religious believes, share a set of common limitations and disadvantages: all constraints than the occupation brings with it. Coexistence, as brothers who face the same challenges, seems to prevail during the period before the celebration of Jesus’s birth, on the 25th.
Palestinian cars reached Jerusalem and will later go back to the West Bank with the Patriarch and a variety of local religious figures. The gate was open, and a small group of Palestinian children replaced the normal crowd of visitors receiving the holy guests. Soldiers with different uniforms and background and believes were standing together, Palestinians and Israelis. The woman soldiers were talking to each other. They were calling the children asking them not to create problems, not today. Smiles and hands shaken until the gate was close. Again.
The center was full of music, not of people. An optimist description would be to see the main square as half full. A day that all citizen of Bethlehem were waiting for. Not because of its religious meaning but mostly to finally open their businesses and see clients entering their shops; to sell the thousands of handmade nativity scenes, “Papa Noels'” hats, coffee, tea, and local beers. The sunset was escorted by concerts and the night’s main attraction became the church. Thousands of believers and non-believers , came together to follow a set of ceremonies have been performed every year on the same day for over 2000 years. The Nativity church hosted its mass in Latin, with many languages alternating: English, Italian, French and even Hebrew. Hundreds of believers were reaping rituals calling for mercy, tolerance and peace.
On the next morning, the magic atmosphere of Christmas day already belonged to the past. Tear gas, smog and explosions. Young Palestinians challenging again a strong Israeli army. Confrontation and violence, while busses full of tourists were opening their doors on the main square. Christians from all around the world arrived to spend a few hours in the holy city, visiting the church. It is Christmas. The symbolic value of the city won over the fear and negative propaganda against the Palestinian town. Visitors came, visitors are leaving. What will happen tomorrow?