If you relied on your local newspaper to tell you how things went in Bethlehem this Christmas season, don’t believe what you read.
Newspapers across America relied heavily on an Associated Press story to inform their readers that “Bethlehem Celebrates its Merriest Christmas in Years”.
It did not ask the people who live and work there.
The same optimistic headline ran over the same upbeat AP story, in US newspapers from Lafourche Parish, Louisiana to both major dailies in Washington, DC.
By virtue of its tight control over the AP bureau in Jerusalem, the Israeli government took advantage of a lazy, parsimonious American media and an equally lazy and complacent American public to guarantee yet another distorted portrait of life in the land Jesus made holy.
A Google search reveals more than 1300 references to that “Bethlehem is merry” AP story. Editors in Marietta, Georgia; Dallas, Texas; San Diego and San Francisco, California, to cite a few of them, relied on that Israeli-approved version that readers could smile over as they stripped open their Yuletide gifts and downed their cholesterol-packed eggnog.
In Jerusalem, the “merry Christmas” lie that blanketed the US, was received as one more “well done” effort by those Israeli officials who work hard to whitewash the brutality with which Israel’s army rules Palestine.
Bethlehem was anything but “merry” this Christmas because its citizens continue to live in a prison behind a 30 foot high wall, not a “security barrier”, as every US newspaper called the wall in its AP story.
The AP story also reports, without blushing, that Israel “allowed” 500 citizens from Gaza, to go through the “security barrier” to reach the Church of the Nativity. Was there not a single copy editor in America who knew that they were using the barrier term dictated by the ruling occupiers?
Here is the opening of the AP story as it entered homes across America on Christmas weekend. If you do not weep for the state of American journalism when you read it, you have made one too many Israeli-sponsored trips into Palestine.
BETHLEHEM, West Bank — The traditional birthplace of Jesus is celebrating its merriest Christmas in years, as tens of thousands of tourists thronged Bethlehem on Friday for the annual holiday festivities in this biblical West Bank town.
Officials said the turnout was shaping up to be the largest since 2000. Unseasonably mild weather, a virtual halt in Israeli-Palestinian violence and a burgeoning economic revival in the West Bank all added to the holiday cheer.
By nightfall, a packed Manger Square was awash in red, blue, green and yellow Christmas lights.
Merrymakers blasted horns, bands sang traditional Christmas carols in Arabic, boy scout marching bands performed and Palestinian policemen deployed around the town to keep the peace.
A group of 30 tourists from Papua New Guinea, all wearing red Santa hats, walked around the nearby Church of the Nativity, built on the site where tradition holds Jesus was born. Both church officials and the Palestinian president voiced hopes for peace.
As you read the complete story in the Washington Post, note carefully how the AP shapes the story:
The first reference to “Palestine” is not in the friendly reference to Bethlehem’s location in “this biblical West Bank town”, but in the lie that refers to “a virtual halt in Israeli-Palestinian violence and a burgeoning economic revival in the West Bank all added to the holiday cheer.”
A virtual halt? That is the official Israeli line, but it is not true; there is no “halt” from the Israeli side. What about these air strikes reported by the Palestinian Ma’an newspaper two days before Christmas?
GAZA CITY (Ma’an) — Two Palestinians were reported injured on Tuesday afternoon when Israeli warplanes dropped a single missile on an area used by members of Hamas’ armed wing, the Al-Qassam Brigades, medics confirmed.
The strike was the second round of the day, with jets striking eight sites across the Gaza Strip shortly before sunrise on Tuesday morning. The earlier strikes injured two fighters and one civilian, a security guard in a nearby dairy factory.
The latest strike hit west of the southern Gaza Strip city of Khan Younis, where at least three of the strikes earlier in the day also targeted.
Spokesman for medical and emergency services in Gaza Adham Abu Salmiya said the two injured were transferred to the Abu Yousif An-Najjar Hospital in Khan Younis.
A statement from the Israeli military said the strike targeted a “Hamas terror activity center,” and noted that “A direct hit was confirmed.”
The story also reports “rocket fire” from the Palestinian side, a “projectile” to which the Israeli Air Force responded with low-flying war planes attacking an “area” in which Hamas has been known to be located. Is this proportional? Fighter planes against random rockets? Of course not. Does the US media point this out? Of course not.
The AP Christmas story focuses on the crowded hotels inside Bethlehem. No doubt that benefits local hotels, but as the London Guardian notes, Israel benefits more than Palestine from the tourist trade.
“It is true that this is a record year and that we have never received so many tourists in Bethlehem. The problem is that we only get 10% of the tourist revenues. The rest stays in Israel,” complains Palestinian tourism minister Khouloud Daibes. A total of 1.4 million people have visited Jesus’s birthplace this year, a 60% increase compared with last year. According to the minister, 70%-80% of this year’s tourists are one-day visitors.
The London Independent is even more pessimistic about Bethlehem’s economic progress:
Hoteliers argue the easing of restrictions are largely cosmetic and fail to address the bigger issue of permanent access for tourists. “We don’t want only the seven days of Christmas. We want it all year round,” said Amir Jaber, director of sales at the Jacir Palace Intercontinental in Bethlehem.
Some agencies bringing groups from cruise ships that dock at Ashdod and Haifa are thinking of dropping Bethlehem from their itineraries altogether because of the unpredictable delays, Mr Jaber claimed.
Israel’s civil administration declined to comment on border procedures, saying only that 2010 was a “record-breaking year” for tourism in Bethlehem, thanks in large part to Israel’s confidence-building measures.
But not everybody is benefiting. At an iron gate that cuts off Palestinian access to Rachel’s Tomb to protect the Jewish worshippers, only five out of the 60 or more shops that once stood here remain. The area is one of the most lawless in an otherwise safe town because the Palestinian police are prevented by Israel from operating here.
Just off Manger Square, souvenir vendors watch with frustration as the tourists streaming out of the Church of the Nativity head back to their buses for the drive back to Jerusalem.
James J. Zogby, president of the Arab American Institute, wrote an essay for the Jordan Times which compares the Bethlehem of 2000 years ago with today:
While the kings of old, we are told, were able to travel from afar bearing gifts to honor the newborn child, one can only imagine the difficulties they would encounter today dealing with Israeli soldiers at the King Hussein bridge.
Having endured their interrogations, myself, I can hear the kings answer hours of questions, such as: “Where are you from?”, “Who are your parents, grandparents?”, “Why are you here?”, “Who are you visiting?”, “What are these gifts for?”, and on and on. In the end, it is doubtful whether those hapless “kings from the East” would have gained entry.
That Joseph, Mary and Jesus were able to flee to Egypt to escape Herod’s vengeful wrath was possible back then. Today, that option is unlikely. The barrier/wall that encapsulates the West Bank and the closure of Gaza would make such a trip impossible.
Finally, as I reflect on the birth of Jesus, I cannot help but think of the nearly 400 babies who would be born on Christmas day to Palestinian parents in the West Bank and Gaza. I think as well of the number of those who will perish at birth because of inadequate medical services (some babies have been put at fatal risk at checkpoints, because Israeli soldiers would not permit their delivering mothers to pass).
And I think of Mary, 2000 years ago, and am grateful that, despite all she endured, there were no checkpoints blocking her way to Bethlehem.
Look not to the American media for the truth about this Christmas season in Palestine. Look instead into your own soul and ask the simple question: When will the American media wake up to the fact that it has been deceived by the government of Israel into doing its bidding?