It is another anxious Christmas for the inhabitants of Bethlehem. This is the time of year when they have a chance to break out of an isolation enforced in concrete since Israel enclosed the town with a “separation wall” more than a decade ago.
On Christmas Eve, in a centuries-old tradition, Palestinian and foreign pilgrims rub shoulders as they throng into the ancient Church of the Nativity to celebrate the anniversary of the birth of Jesus at its reputed location two millennia ago.
Outside, in Manger Square, the lights and baubles on a huge Christmas tree provide some festive glitz, while hawkers assail the tourists, exploiting the chance to sell them Santa hats and stocking fillers of plastic light sabres and illuminated spinning tops.
Most of the foreign pilgrims enter Bethlehem by coach through a gate in the wall heavily policed by Israeli soldiers. They disembark at the church’s entrance and most depart for Jerusalem as soon as the event is over.
Nowadays few tourists get to meet or talk to a Palestinian in Bethlehem. Earlier this year, Israel tried to further choke off tourism revenue by warning travel agencies that their groups must not stay overnight in Bethlehem’s handful of cheap hotels.
Largely sealed off from the world, Bethlehem is today almost as well-known for its graffiti, visible from coaches on the pilgrim trail through the wall, as the nativity. Amid iconic images by Banksy, the famous British street artist, is the handiwork of local…