Behind a 30-Foot Prison Wall, “Merry Christmas” Becomes a Media Lie

by James M. Wall

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?

About wallwritings

From 1972 through 1999, James M. Wall was editor and publisher of the Christian Century magazine, based in Chicago, lllinois. He was a Contributing Editor of the Century from 1999 until July, 2017. He has written this blog, wall, since it was launched April 27, 2008. If you would like to receive Wall Writings alerts when new postings are added to this site, send a note, saying, Please Add Me, to Biography: Journalism was Jim's undergraduate college major at Emory University, Atlanta, Georgia. He has earned two MA degrees, one from Emory, and one from the University of Chicago, both in religion. He is an ordained United Methodist clergy person. He served for two years in the US Air Force, and three additional years in the USAF reserve. While serving on active duty with the Alaskan Command, he reached the rank of first lieutenant. He has worked as a sports writer for both the Atlanta Journal and Constitution, was editor of the United Methodist magazine, Christian Advocate for ten years, and editor and publisher of the Christian Century magazine for 27 years. James M Wall died March 22, 2021 at age 92. His family appreciates all of his readers, even those who may have disagreed with his well-informed writings.
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15 Responses to Behind a 30-Foot Prison Wall, “Merry Christmas” Becomes a Media Lie

  1. Caroline Cracraft says:

    Spot on, Jim, as always. From me in London : in The OBSERVER (26 Dec) Ana Carbajosa reported along lines similar to The Guardian and The Independent, with the added interesting note that almost a quarter of visitors to Bethlehem this year are Russians – indeed, thanks to a visa exemption for Russians traveling to Israel, pushed through by Avigdor Lieberman, Russian Orthodox are flooding in. Next year a Russian museum and guest house will be built in nearby Jericho. In another paper (which I cannot now lay hands on) was a report that there are very few shepherds left in Bethlehem – the wall has cut them off from their customary pasture land, and buying feed makes raising sheep uneconomic. Many are now construction workers in the illegal settlements!

  2. Pauline Coffman says:

    Well, heck. For a few minutes I wanted to believe the news story about how wonderful life is now in Bethlehem. Apparently it is “wonderful” in Ramallah, in Nablus, in Jenin…I wonder when we will hear about how wonderful it is in Hebron? Jim, once again you burst the bubble of optimism. Anyone who believes we live in a free and open democratic society needs to read your blog. Newspapers manage the news to our advantage consistently. Sad.

  3. Robert H Stiver says:

    This is typically excellent reporting by Jim — comprehensive truth. I hope that readers might appreciate this lengthy article by Stuart Littlewood; I consider it a confirmation of the larger picture painted by Jim:

  4. Carolfrances Likins says:

    I have sent the following letter to the Associated Press. I got the email address and telephone number for The Associated Press on its web site:

    Here is what I wrote to the AP:

    “I was furious when I read the article you put out as news about Bethlehem being “merry”! This is zionist propaganda, just as your giving the white South African side of the anti-apartheid struggle would have been racist. How dare you!

    You might have talked to Palestinians who live there. (Yes; it’s not Disneyland; people actually live there.) You could have asked Palestinian tourism minister Khouloud Daibes, who would have told you, “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.” (Of course we have to read the likes of the “London Guardian” to get that; in “free” U.S.America, one gets the zionist-approved AP.)

    That’s your “burgeoning economic revival in the West Bank. Israelis bring tourists in on their buses, warn the tourists against talking to the dangerous natives, let them go to the tourist attractions and curio shops, and herd them back onto the buses.

    And Bethlehem is not in the part of Palestine that the UN gave to the the zionists, it’s in the West Bank. What right does Israel have to control trade and tourism there!

    Believe me, I’ve been to Palestine to visit Palestinians and I can give you first-hand experience about how the state of Israel treats people who are suspected of having met with ordinary Palestinians. And your definition of “a virtual halt in Israeli-Palestinian violence” midst the bombing of Gaza?! Clearly it means that Gaza is not part of Palestine to you, or that massacres are not “violence” if it’s the Palestinians getting killed. I expect and deserve a response!”


  5. Dorothy Gelb says:

    Tears flow from the frustration of getting the truth to America! Perhaps we should publish the Kairos Document in every publication we can find. Call it an appeal to ALL PEOPLES and ALL FAITHS from Palestinians. Yes, a letter from the Palestinians to YOU, whoever you call yourself. It is to all peoples everywhere including the Israelis. A letter asking for PEACE and a shared space to celebrate the holy places of all men/women.

  6. I am fast becoming a fan of yours, Jim, because I believe in my heart that you are speaking the whole truth. A trip to Israel and Palestine in 2006 with a group of 100 Presbyterians from the US began a deep working in my life to whiuch I have committed to continue to teach, share, pray and advocate for peace to our church, our community, our elected leaders and anyone else who will listen and to even those who are “zionists”. When singing the carol, “O Little Town of Bethlehem” this year, I found myself weeping and crying out in my heart, “Lord, How much longer will my brothers and sisters in the Holy Land have to endure the daily violelnce of the occupation?”
    I just posted this on my FACEBOOK page and will email it to those on my email list. Maranatha!!

  7. Rev. Richard K. Gibson says:

    thanks, Jim. I just wrote a bulletin insert that says similar things. All is not
    rosey. We must continue to “cry out” when “NO CRYING HE MAKES” the
    people are silenced.
    Rev. Richard K. Gibson
    Presbyterian Church, HR

  8. Harris Fawell says:

    Thanks again for your thoughts in regard to the poor reporting of the American news media during our Christmas season. Fortunately, however, I came across some good coverage that appeared in the Christian Science Monitor magazine dated 12/27/10. The story deals with American-born rabbi Arik Ascherman. Ascherman may be soft-spoken, but he is embroiled on the right side in two of Israel’s main conflicts today: (1) the struggle with Palestinians over the West Bank and (2) within Israel, and the rising tide of anti-Arab and antiforeigner sentiment. Lynfield reports that the latter issue is starkly illustrated by an unprecedented rabbinical edict calling on Jews not to rent or sell property to non-Jews. Lynfield points out that “Both conflicts are at the heart of a debate over whether Israel can be democratic as well as Jewish. Ascherman is obviously a liberal voice struggling to be heard among Israel’s more prevalent Orthodox strain.” Lynfield also points out the increasingly vocal opposition to African asylum-seekers – dubbed “infiltrators” by the Israeli government. Lynfield also writes that “Ascherman and his organization draws on the “humanistic teachings of the late America rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel, who marched alongside Martin Luther King Jr. and opposed theVietman Ward.”
    I admit that one doesn’t find such criticial thoughts about Israel in our American press but this one was heartening for me to read. Thanks again for your fine reports. Harris

  9. Elice Higginbotham says:

    Thank you, once again, not only for telling the truth, but giving the lie to those who so systematically distort it. Bethlehem has overtaken my consciousness this Christmas season, as the “hopes” struggle mightily against the “fears of all the years.” I only pray that, through continued exposure, the real truth of the occupation of Palestine, and the way the U.S. continues to support it, will ultimately come out and be discredited.

  10. Robert Hannum says:

    Thanks for your truthful reporting, which we all so desperately need – our media especially! Our Palestinian friend, Jamal and his brother were finally able to build their own shop just below the old checkpost, located 1/2 mile up the road from the present one. After two years, they were finally turning a small profit, when the Govt. of Israel cleared all the shops there out. The Israelis then built two buildings and a courtyard, through which tourists, if they are by themselves or in a small group, must go through, 1/2 mile down the road. Foreigners get through, but local Palestinians often don’t, if they don’t have the proper permits. In Manger Square are some of the finest shops, offering the most graceful olive wood products. But, tour guides (both Israeli and Palestinian), tell tourists, “Don’t wander around – it’s dangerous. I’ll take you to better shops anyway.” Well – “better shops” means a higher kick-back for the guide, sometimes as high as 40% on the product, which they share (some) with the bus driver.

    We had just come through the new checkpost into Bethlehem, and, as we waited for our driver to pick us up to take us to the Palestinian school we have supported for 15 years, we sipped Arabic coffee and chatted with several of the merchants, who told us how bad business is. As we prepared to leave for our ride, one shop keeper said, “Please visit my shop first – it’s close by.” When we said, reluctantly, we just couldn’t, he look at us sadly and replied: “Okay, not now – for the future, for the future.”

    Happy New Year.

  11. Bill Gepford says:

    Right on the mark, Jim. Again thanks for your boldness and truth-telling. I ran across this quote by Tad Williams, “We tell lies when we are afraid…afraid of what we don’t know, afraid of what others will think, afraid of what will be found out about us. But every time we tell a lie, the thing that we fear grows stronger.” Regarding the Israeli/Palestinian impass, the day of reckoning is fast approaching.

  12. Thanks for this exposing of AP “reporting” and our supposed “free press,” which is a key part of any working democracy. It seems we don’t care that our “free press” is now pretty useless and Americans slumber on, like in Disney’s “Sleeping Beauty,” unaware of the brambles growing all around the castle…and choking it.

  13. Alvin Alexsi Currier says:

    Tis Christmas Eve,
    Something that I just had to write
    By Alvin Alexsi Currier,
    December 23rd 2010, in the morning from Ajijic, Mexico

    Tis Christmas Eve Day in the Mornin’.
    The golden dawn creeps across the peaks
    flowing molten down the mountainsides
    into the last dark purples of yesterday’s night.
    As my waking body stretches, my slumbering mind catches
    a flash of the morning news

    “Today Israeli Defense Forces
    shot and killed a twenty year old Palestinian shepherd
    who wandered with his flock
    too close to the border buffer zone.”
    My stretching body retches.
    I lower myself back on to the bed
    Tears flood my eyes. I clench my teeth in anguish.
    The golden dawn spills blood-red into this day.
    They shot the Shepherd on Christmas Eve.

    Dear family and friends:
    Tonight as the sun sets
    my body may join you in festive hymns and liturgical pageantry
    but my soul will be far from here,
    hunkered down in the biting winds of a Holy Land plain,
    sitting wake and keeping watch with a shepherds blood dried in the sand.
    No heavenly host will emblazon the cold-blue star-studded heavens above us.
    No clip-clop of kingly camels will cut the crisp chill with echoes.

    Alone we will watch over Bethlehem,
    over her security wall and her ghostly watch towers.
    We will sit Shiva for a Judaism shot by Zionists.
    Did you know that dead shepherd became a father last night?
    His child was born to him on the eve of Christmas Eve.
    The new father didn’t even live long enough to name his child.

  14. Sam Jones says:

    Outstanding research used to once again pull back the curtain of the American M.S.M. (so-called “liberal” and conservative alike), which perpetuates the mythology of Israeli benevolence and advances the viewpoint that the Palestinians are really little more than humanitarian cases who should be appreciative of these Christmas-time gifts. Bethlehem, Beit Jala, and Beit Sahour were always my favorite places to spend time with friends during my year working at Sabeel and on returning in 2004 and seeing the affront that is the wall, I could only stand and weep. American Christians who, in an incredible act of collective self-delusion, see no connection to the Bethlehem of the Bible and our Christmas songs and the modern day ghetto of today, are directly responsible for the persecution of Christians in the birthplace of Christ.

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