+972 Magazine's Stories of the Week

Directly In Your Inbox

Analysis News
Visit our Hebrew site, "Local Call" , in partnership with Just Vision.

In Bethlehem, even running is a political statement

Despite their difficult circumstances, Palestinians in Bethlehem find ways to remind the world that Israel’s occupation cannot exist forever.

A young woman runs next to the Israeli separation wall as hundreds of Palestinian and international athletes took part in the the inaugural Palestine Marathon which took place in Bethlehem, West Bank, April 21, 2013. Under the title "Right to Movement" runners had to complete two laps of the same route, as organizers were unable to find a single course of 42 uninterrupted kilometers under Palestinian Authority control.

A young woman runs next to the Israeli separation wall as hundreds of Palestinian and international athletes took part in the the inaugural Palestine Marathon which took place in Bethlehem, West Bank, April 21, 2013.

The organizers of the Palestine Marathon, held annually in the West Bank city of Bethlehem since 2013, recently announced that its next run will take place on Friday 1st April, 2016.

The event – one my most memorable highlights of 2015 – is a thrilling experience. The thousands that gathered in Manger Square, where the run kicks off, included Muslim and Christian Palestinians, internationals from dozens of foreign countries, and even some Israeli Jews. Some came to support the marathon’s motto of “the right to movement;” some just came for the exercise. A few joked that they were practicing running away from soldiers for the next time they went to a demonstration.

As the runners passed through the streets, we were watched by children cheering and waving Palestinian flags from their windows, with the occasional men teasing from the sidewalks: “Forget this crap habibi, yalla come have coffee with us!” Among the crowds were groups wearing T-shirts promoting various causes, while artists walked by showcasing their work. This year one artist, Rana Bishara, carried a large wooden cross covered with empty tear gas shells used by the Israeli security forces.

The most notable feature of the Palestine Marathon, however, is the route itself. Starting from the Church of the Nativity (said to be the site of Jesus Christ’s birth), runners are taken through the streets of the city and into the Aida and Dheisheh refugee camps – the entrance to the former marked by an arch with a giant key representing the Palestinian right of return. The route then goes along Israel’s separation wall, where runners witness firsthand the concrete barrier enclosing the town, the security towers and cameras leering down at them, and the graffiti displaying political images and defiant slogans.

A Palestinian father and son run past the Israeli separation wall dividing the West Bank town of Bethlehem during the second annual Palestine Marathon, April 11, 2014. (photo: Activestills.org)

A Palestinian father and son run past the Israeli separation wall dividing the West Bank town of Bethlehem during the second annual Palestine Marathon, April 11, 2014. (photo: Activestills.org)

Bethlehem is in many ways an exceptional place in the West Bank due to the mix of its religious significance, cultural vibrancy, international presence, and relative autonomy as an urban center in the PA-governed Area A. But even with its stature, the historic city cannot escape the fate of the other Palestinian communities in the West Bank.

Friday marked the 49th Christmas which Bethlehem has celebrated under Israeli military occupation. While thousands gathered around the massive lighted tree in Manger Square to the sounds of church bells and fireworks, Israeli soldiers just a short drive away continued manning their checkpoints and patrolling the separation wall. Long lines of drivers waited for their cars to be inspected, and pedestrians passed through metal detectors holding up their ID cards. All the while, an Israeli flag waved above the scene to remind the people who to thank for their situation.

Bethlehem’s endurance under occupation has become more difficult due to the violent unrests that have persisted since October. Palestinian protesters routinely clashed with the army at the checkpoints hurling curses, stones, or burning tires at soldiers. The IDF hit back with tear gas, arrest raids, and live and rubber bullets that killed dozens and injured scores more in the Bethlehem area alone. In one video, an Israeli soldier on a megaphone warned the residents of Aida camp that “we will gas you until you die” if demonstrations continued.

Israeli border policemen are seen during clashes with Palestinian youths in the West Bank city of Bethlehem, November 13, 2015. (Mustafa Bader/Activestills.org)

Israeli border policemen are seen during clashes with Palestinian youths in the West Bank city of Bethlehem, November 13, 2015. (Mustafa Bader/Activestills.org)

The consequences of the violent climate was reflected in the more modest public celebrations and lower numbers of visitors during this year’s Christmas holidays – an effect that brings another blow to the city’s welfare, particularly to its Christian community. For years, the crippling reality of the occupation has pushed many Christians to leave Palestine to seek better opportunities elsewhere, with some leaving out of concern that political or violent Islamist groups could grow and threaten their rights as a religious minority.

Israeli hasbarists and their allies like to claim that these changes in the shrinking Christian community (a worrisome trend occurring throughout the Middle East) reveal the discriminatory attitudes and policies of Palestine’s Muslim majority, presenting Israel as the only haven and caretaker for Arab Christians in the Middle East. But as +972 writer Ryan Rodrick Beiler illustrated yesterday, and as journalist Jonathan Cook described about Nazareth in Israel, this is an ignorant view used to manipulate the Christian community for an undesired political agenda.

Contrary to Israel’s claims, and despite their minority numbers, Christians have been and continue to be a fundamental part of Palestinian society and national identity alongside their Muslim compatriots. Many of the greatest political leaders, intellectuals, writers, and cultural icons in Palestinian history were Christian. Today, Palestinian Christians continue to be among the foremost activists combating the Israeli occupation on the streets and on university campuses. The vast majority in the Christian community – including those living in the city of Jesus’ birth – is under no illusions of what the biggest threat to their existence really is: Israel’s relentless repression of Palestinian presence in the Holy Land, irrespective of their religion.

A Christmas tree made of razor wire and tear gas grenades is displayed in Manger Square, Bethlehem as part of an activist art exhibit, December 21, 2013. (Ryan Rodrick Beiler/Activestills.org)

A Christmas tree made of razor wire and tear gas grenades is displayed in Manger Square, Bethlehem as part of an activist art exhibit, December 21, 2013. (Ryan Rodrick Beiler/Activestills.org)

It is unfortunate that Christmas in Bethlehem requires a lament for the difficult circumstances which the Palestinian people – Muslim and Christian – have to cope with in their daily lives. A simple walk around the city becomes a haunting reminder that the basic rights to movement, religious practice, and liberty in the Holy Land are not human entitlements at birth, but special privileges that require arduous political struggle to obtain.

Thankfully though, the Palestinian community has always found ways to remind themselves, Israelis, and the world that this reality cannot be the case forever, and that despite their hardships, they can still celebrate life to the fullest extent possible.

So if anyone is interested in demanding that Christmas’ home city be freed from occupation, in making a symbolic political statement against oppressive barriers, or in just having a good workout – see you at the Palestine Marathon in April.

Correction:
A previous version of this article mistakenly stated that Bethlehem has celebrated Christmas 48 times under military occupation. We got out the calculator and it turns out we miscalculated. Friday was the 49th Christmas since the start of the occupation.

Before you go...

A lot of work goes into creating articles like the one you just read. And while we don’t do this for the money, even our model of non-profit, independent journalism has bills to pay.

+972 Magazine is owned by our bloggers and journalists, who are driven by passion and dedication to the causes we cover. But we still need to pay for editing, photography, translation, web design and servers, legal services, and more.

As an independent journalism outlet we aren’t beholden to any outside interests. In order to safeguard that independence voice, we are proud to count you, our readers, as our most important supporters. If each of our readers becomes a supporter of our work, +972 Magazine will remain a strong, independent, and sustainable force helping drive the discourse on Israel/Palestine in the right direction.

Support independent journalism in Israel/Palestine Donate to +972 Magazine today
View article: AAA
Share article
Print article
  • LEAVE A COMMENT

    * Required

    COMMENTS

    1. Tony Riley

      Such bullshit
      Are you saying that the population of Bethlehem has increased because Jews have thrown the Christians out?

      Reply to Comment
      • Ben

        Nope. He’s saying that “The vast majority in the Christian community – including those living in the city of Jesus’ birth – is under no illusions of what the biggest threat to their existence really is: Israel’s relentless repression of Palestinian presence in the Holy Land, irrespective of their religion.”

        Reply to Comment
        • Merkava

          It is never difficult to show how and why you are a gullible, hateful clown who is extremely susceptible to propaganda and anti-Israel and/or anti-Semitic vitriol from political pundits.

          Here, get some education. After that we will get to the genocide of Christian in the Muslim (Arab) world and show you that Christians in Israel have the same Freedom of worship as Christians in the West.

          “Galilee1 and Jerusalem, the heartlands of the New Testament, are today part of the State of Israel. Christians only make up a small proportion of the total Israeli population. As a percentage of this total, their proportion is sinking, but in real terms THEIR NUMBERS ARE GROWING. Christians in Israel are mainly Arabs who are Israeli citizens, which gives them complex identity issues and different points of reference. Although their religious freedom is guaranteed,3 local Christian Arabs are faced with two challenges relating to their situation as a dual minority. On the one hand they are part of the Arab sector in Israel and hence bound up in the tense and complex relations between the Jewish majority and Arab minority. Secondly, as Christians they are a minority within the Arab sector and exposed to increasing socio-economic and religious pressure from the Muslim majority. (…). The Arab Christians of the Holy Land are whole-heartedly in favor of the establishment of a free Palestinian state. But they are not blind to the fact that the Arab nationalist movement will never achieve the necessary conditions for Christians to be treated as equal citizens,” namely the total secularization of politics”.

          http://www.kas.de/wf/doc/kas_21321-1522-2-30.pdf?101208143454

          Reply to Comment
    2. Merkava

      No amount of Muslim Arab propaganda will destroy the truth. In the end the truth will prevail. Here is the reality on the ground Amjad and his colleagues are afraid of:

      “Christians have been a presence in the Middle East for two millennia. Hundreds of churches and monasteries were built after Constantine legalized Christianity in 313. Yet after the Islamic conquest in 638 Christians have been subjected to Arab and Muslim rule for centuries. Their status in the Ottoman Empire was that of dhimmis, non-Muslims who were protected but who were second-class citizens. In this millet system based on religious affiliation, Christians were tolerated but they were also in a state of perpetual humiliation, even of subjugation. (…)The discriminatory treatment of Christians by the Muslim majority and the consequences of continuing Arab hostility towards the state of Israel have led to increasing migration from the West Bank and Gaza, the areas controlled by Muslims. Christians in those two areas now account for only about 40,000, 1.5 per cent of the total. The towns of Ramallah and Bethlehem, which depended on the Christian tourist and pilgrim trade, both lost their Christian majorities. In 1995, the number of Christians in Bethlehem was two-thirds of the population; today it is now less than 20 percent. According to the1947 census held by the British there were 28,000 Christians in Jerusalem; in 1967 after 19 years of Jordanian rule there were 11,000. By contrast, the number of Christians in Israel has increased from 34,000 in 1949 and 120,000 in 1995 to over 150,000, now numbering about nine percent of the Israeli Arab population, and two percent of the total population in all of Israel.”

      Read more here: http://www.gatestoneinstitute.org/2838/palestinians-christians

      Reply to Comment
    3. been there

      In Bethlehem as in all of historic Palestine, not just running, existing is a political statement..sumud. Two well known slogans are “To Exist is to Resist” and “Stay Human”.

      Reply to Comment
      • Carmen

        Just breathing is resistance when so many want you dead. Long live and blessings to the Palestinian people and all people of peace and good will. Best wishes in April!

        Reply to Comment