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As Bethlehem's Mayor, I Ask: Why Are U.S. Christians Celebrating Israeli Policies Strangling Jesus' Birthplace?

by Anton Salman

The language of Netanyahu and his cabinet increasingly references a Bible-citing and religious, rather than political, war against the Palestinians. And American evangelicals are his enthusiastic foot-soldiers.

The world refers to the land of Jesus and the cradle of Christianity as "the land of peace." The political reality today is quite the opposite.
There are no words to describe the incarceration of Jesus' birthplace, Bethlehem. It is enclosed by 18 illegal Israeli settlements, segregated road networks and infrastructures. Bethlehem’s 2,000-year-old contiguity with Jerusalem has been cut by a network of Israeli settlements and annexation, which also prevents the town from ever expanding further.

We, the people of Bethlehem, have been separated from our hinterland, denied our right to control our natural resources and forced to cross Israeli checkpoints even to move within Palestine. Left with limited control over just 13 percent of its governorate, Bethlehem is an example of what 50 years of Israeli occupation have meant for Palestine and Palestinians in general, and to the Christians of the Holy Land in particular.

Ironically, in a few days, significant numbers of Christian evangelicals, mainly from the U.S., will come to celebrate those same Israeli policies strangling the birthplace of Jesus Christ. 

The Prime Minister's Office has joined efforts with various agencies normalizing Israeli violations of international law, including the Israeli Ministry of Tourism and the so-called Jerusalem municipality, to bring in "Christian media" representatives. The conference, to be held in an Israeli hotel built on Palestinian, illegally confiscated land in occupied East Jerusalem, includes a tour in support of the illegal wall which surrounds Bethlehem. They will also be taken to the lands of Beit Jala, to visit the illegal settlement of Gilo, thus supporting Israel's destruction of the Cremisan Valley and the dispossession of dozens of Palestinian Christian families.

As a descendant of one of Bethlehem's oldest Christian families, I was taught that Christianity's message of is one of love, peace and justice. That's the message we celebrate here every Christmas. The message of this conference, however, will be one of succor to oppression and apartheid. Participants will bestow their "divine blessing" on the illegal policies of the Israeli government – violations under international law.

This conference is not only an attempt to normalize the Israeli occupation of Palestine, but also part of the systematic Israeli strategy to exploit religion and holy texts as a political tool.

A few weeks ago Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu used the Bible to justify the Israeli occupation at the United Nations, just as several members of the Israeli cabinet continue to incite against the Palestinian people, referencing a "divine right" to take over our homeland. This is a dangerous trend that aims at turning a political question into a religious war.

When Netanyahu addressed the U.S. Congress in 2011 he said, referring to the occupied West Bank, that "this is the land of our forefathers, the Land of Israel ... No distortion of history can deny the 4,000-year-old bond between the Jewish people and the Jewish land." Sadly, we didn't hear American religious leaders challenging Netanyahu to stop using his Biblical interpretations to justify a land grab. It reminds me of the dark period when South Africa's apartheid regime would use "theological" arguments to justify its racist policies.

History has shown that there is nothing divine in the violation of another people's rights. Certainly, participation in a crime shouldn’t be called a "blessing."

As the newly elected mayor of Bethlehem I witness on a daily basis the effects of the blind support of Israel given by my Christian co-religionists. How fundamentalist theological positions are used to justify injustice. But no church worthy of its name should offer a theological smoke screen for the denial of our most basic rights as Palestinians. 

To those who choose to stand on the oppressor's side, I ask them to remember our origins as Christians, and to resurrect the universal message of hope born in a grotto in Bethlehem 2,000 years ago. Only when human dignity is respected and equal rights are granted, only when the Israeli occupation is over and Palestinians are able to achieve their full potential on their own land, will we be able to say that peace has returned to the land of peace.

Anton Salman, a lawyer, was elected this year as the mayor of Bethlehem.

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