Oh Little Star of Bethlehem

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A Conversation With Xavier Abu Eid

By David Kattenburg

Christ was born in Bethlehem, so the story goes.

Whether or not Mary did actually give birth to Jesus in this little community in the southern Judean hills, ten kilometers south of Jerusalem — as opposed to another place called Bethlehem in the northern Galilee — is a matter of debate in certain scholarly circles.

 

But of course, the debate is academic. The Bethlehem we’ve all come to know, Christians and non-Christians alike — built by the early Israelite king Rehoboam, according to the Hebrew Bible; home to Canaanites in the mid-1300s BCE; King David’s birthplace and location of his crowning, according to tradition; Jesus’s birthplace, according to Luke and Matthew; captured by Muslims in 637, and by Crusaders in 1099; snatched back by Saladin ninety years later; later to be controlled by Mamluks and Ottomans, then the British — is as likely a spot as any.

Church of the Nativity, Bethlehem

Church of the Nativity, Bethlehem

And the 1700 year-old Church of the Nativity to which pilgrims flock at this time of year, commissioned by Constantine the Great’s mother, the Empress Helena, in the mid-300s CE, has all the forensics to prove Christ was indeed born here.

Interestingly, Palestinians are glad the 1994/95 Oslo accords granted them nominal control over Bethlehem and her cultural treasures, and it isn’t just the dwindling Christian minority in this town of 25,000 that’s smiling. Palestinian Muslims see their stewardship of Bethlehem’s Christian holy sites as proof of political maturity and administrative capacity.

Xavier Abu Eid

Xavier Abu Eid

No one speaks more articulately on these matters than a gentleman named Xavier Abu Eid. Abu Eid works with the Negotiation Support Unit of the Palestine Liberation Organization, and has taken a lead role in cultural matters within the PLO. Back in the summer of 2012, he and I sat down for a chat on the balcony of the Angel Hotel in Beit Jala, on the edge of Bethlehem.

A year earlier, in the Fall of 2011, Palestine had won membership at the United Nations Education, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) — a gambit the US and Canada had fiercely opposed. Seeking UNESCO membership was a “political” move, the Americans and Canadians argued; pointless at best, inimical to the “peace process” at worst. Even asking for membership was an irresponsible act of bad faith. A hundred and seven UNESCO members disagreed, and Palestine had a seat.

DSC_0398Having won its bid, the first thing Palestine sought UNESCO support for was ‘Endangered’ World Heritage status for little Bethlehem’s Nativity Church, so that repair work could be undertaken. Much work was completed prior to Pope Francis’ visit in the Spring of 2014.

It wasn’t just termites and bad weather that threatened the venerated stone and wood-beamed structure. Israel’s “belligerent” military occupation posed hazards too. In our conversation, Xavier Abu Eid touches on Israel’s 40-day siege of Bethlehem and its little church, where Palestinian militants had holed themselves up, back in 2002.

Xavier also speaks at length about the roots of Palestinian culture, about the inherent right of Palestinians to valorize and exercise sovereignty over their cultural heritage, and the inherently peaceful thrust of such endeavors.

There’s no time to lose. A host of Palestinian cultural sites are under threat, including the renowned agricultural Terraces of Battir and Cremisan Valley outside Beit Jala, just north of Bethlehem, where Israel wants to extend its Separation Wall. So are a scattering of village churches older than the Churches of Nativity or Holy Sepulchre, some of which have been attacked by Israeli settlers.

Israel's Wall

Israel’s Wall, just outside Bethlehem

The Palestinian people have much to gain, economically, by protecting and restoring cultural sites, and by opening them up for tourism, says Abu Eid. How better to promote the peaceful co-existence of two peoples, living side by side in peace and security, in their own states?

But the notion of “Two States for Two People” grows more distant each day, says Abu Eid.

“I think the two-state solution is still possible, but very elusive,” he sighs. “The status quo has made the occupation profitable for Israel,” he points out, citing the constellation of trade, investment and mutual cooperation agreements that Israel has struck in exchange for completing its Oslo deal with the Palestinians — the entire “Start-Up Nation” concept.

If Israel continues to dig in its heels, says Abu Eid, BDS is the best way to go.

Bethlehem, from across the Separation Wall from Israeli settlement of Gilo, south Jerusalem

Bethlehem, from the south Jerusalem settlement of Gilo, across Israel’s Separation Wall

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