Easter behind the Separation Barrier – Bethlehem 2015 (by EA Elspeth)

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Easter Day sunrise at the Separation Barrier, Bethlehem [Credit: EAPPI/E.Strachan]

Ibrahim and Jamilla live in Bethlehem, just down the road from the Separation Barrier, and I met them, and their niece Leanne, on Holy Saturday in the middle of some elaborate and joyful Easter celebrations in the Bethlehem suburb of Beit Jala. Nearly all the town had turned up.

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Ibrahim, Jamilla and Leanne [Credit: EAPPI/I.Baukhol]

Beit Jala, along with its sister town Beit Sahour, has a fairly large Christian population as, of course, has Bethlehem – the birthplace of Christ – so Easter is an extremely important moment. From Palm Sunday through Maundy Thursday, Good Friday and Holy Saturday, the streets and churches are radiant with palm crosses, flowers, processions, bagpipes, bells, fire, candles, and balloons. It is a huge family affair. And this is multiplied by two because the Western tradition and the Eastern tradition hold Easter only a week apart.

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Awaiting the procession, Beit Jala [Credit: EAPPI/I.Baukhol]

But there is a darker side to Easter in Bethlehem, which is that the city and its suburbs are surrounded by what the Israelis call “The Security Barrier” (ie built to protect Israel from possible Palestinian terrorists and suicide bombers) and what the international community calls the “Separation Barrier” (ie built to keep Israelis and Palestinians separate).

The Separation Barrier, built in 2003, is now estimated by the UN to be around 712 km long and more than twice the length of the Green Line (the armistice line of 1948). Eighty-five percent of it encroaches on the West Bank with Bethlehem particularly badly affected – the barrier snakes around the city affecting businesses, homes, access to worship and to workplaces. Checkpoint 300, the main checkpoint at the barrier in Bethlehem, is therefore not on a recognised border between Palestine and Israel, but between the two major Palestinian cities of Bethlehem and East Jerusalem. Palestinians can only get through the barrier to East Jerusalem for worship and then on into Israel for work with a permit but a permit is hard to get and often refused. Families in Beit Jala have been particularly badly affected. It has lost an estimated 75% of its land to the Israelis since 1967 and is now surrounded by the settlements of Gilo, Har Gilo, and Har Homa, all built illegally on Palestinian land.

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Checkpoint 300 [Credit: EAPPI/E.Strachan]

As ecumenical accompaniers with the Ecumenical Accompaniment Programme in Palestine and Israel, one of our tasks is to monitor Christian and Muslim access to worship in the holy sites in Jerusalem. I began my Easter early on Palm Sunday at Checkpoint 300, the only entrance into and out of Bethlehem from East Jerusalem. I was monitoring the speed and ease of access to worship especially for those Christians who wanted to get to Jerusalem for the hugely popular Palm Sunday procession.

The formal procession of priests and pilgrims is accompanied by lively scout bands – girls and boys from neighbouring towns. We heard that last year most of the Bethlehem area scout troops were not given permits to get through the checkpoint to Jerusalem and so this year we were anxious to find out how many had managed to go. After our duty on the checkpoint and after consultation, we heard that the checkpoint had been closed, with no explanation, from 9.00am-10.30am and that only 50% of the scouts had got through.

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Scouts at Beit Sahour, Palm Sunday [Credit: EAPPI/E.Strachan]

According to Zoughbi Zoughbi of the Palestinian Conflict Transformation Centre, some had not been granted permits and some had decided not even to apply – quite a common occurrence amongst Bethlehem Christians who feel the humiliation of the Israeli permit system which routinely denies them access to Jerusalem. Many, like Ibrahim and Jamilla, stay in Bethlehem and make the celebrations there special . “It used to take 10 minutes to get from Bethlehem to Jerusalem,” said Ibrahim, an accountant. “Now it can take an hour or more. Most of the young men do not receive permits. We stay here to celebrate.”

The Palm Sunday service I attended in the Orthodox Church in Beit Sahour was certainly special. It was packed with people of all ages from very tiny to very old, its liturgy was ancient and melodic, and the procession after the service around the church was accompanied by enthusiastic singing and celebration. Scout bands and local dignitaries joined in a street procession to a clamour of bagpipes and drums with crowds jostling one another for a good view. “We are very proud of our scouts and our young people,” said Niva, a local Christian who had invited me to church. In the three hour Good Friday service in St Catherine’s, Manger Square where hundreds of people processed around the ancient corridors of the church, young people were also prominent, especially the scouts from the Terra Sancta troop many of whom had been denied access to Jerusalem.

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Palm Sunday sunlight, Beit Sahour [Credit: EAPPI/E.Strachan]

On Holy Saturday the mood was very different. A three hour candlelight service began in the dark with a sombre church, gentle with the sound of hundreds of people breathing quietly, awaiting the light of Christ from the Jerusalem Pascal candle to come into the church and into their lives. The message of the service was one of hope in the midst of despair – of the promise of resurrection after crucifixion. Beside me sat Samir, a boy of around ten, holding a candle with great care, in rapt attention throughout the whole service, like his family and everyone around him.

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The Pascal candles, St Catherine’s [Credit: EAPPI/E.Strachan]

Every Easter event I attended in Bethlehem and its surroundings had young people taking a very active part, in particular young men. “They belong to the church youth groups,” Ibrahim told me “and they are proud to organise the events”. During the Palm Sunday and Holy Saturday processions the streets rang with their music and bands and friendly shouts to one another.

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A candle in the dark [Credit: EAPPI/E. Strachan]

Despite being surrounded by a barrier that is designed to separate and divide, despite the rate of unemployment being higher in Bethlehem than anywhere else in the West Bank, despite often being denied access to the main places of worship in Jerusalem, the mood of Easter in Bethlehem was one of joyous, even raucous celebration. The Holy Saturday service in St Catherine’s ended with flooded light, the ringing of bells and with applause. “Christ has risen!” the priest cried. “He is risen indeed,” the congregation shouted back.

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Easter fire and flags in Manger Square [Credit: EAPPI/L.Husemann]

The next morning, Easter Day, I awoke at 6am and walked to the Separation Barrier at Checkpoint 300. The sun was rising above the barbed wire and was beginning to radiate down on to the barren land that had once been an olive grove belonging to a nearby Christian family. It was now lost to them, having been placed in the ‘seam zone’ between the Green Line and the Separation Barrier. The family had fought the Israeli government to allow some of their land to be left to enable access to a nearby convent. They won their case and the barrier route was changed, but they had lost the majority of their land and their livelihood. Nevertheless, they refused to feel hatred and resentment towards the Israeli government. “It is God who is important,” said Mourna, one of the family still living beside the wall. “Love is what matters. Love is stronger than death”. A good message, and one that seemed to be at the heart of those celebrating Easter this year in Bethlehem.

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Easter Day dawns at the Separation Barrier, Bethlehem [Credit: EAPPI/E.Strachan]