Bethlehem, a baby and an animal stall

By returned EA Elspeth, who served with EAPPI in Bethlehem earlier this year. Elspeth wrote this article for Inspires, the magazine of the Scottish Episcopal Church. The article is reproduced here with permission.

It is very difficult these days, with the newspapers full of knife attacks by Palestinians, angry stone-throwing by young people and multiple killings by the Israeli military, to find any glimpses of hope in Israel and occupied Palestine.

Advent is a time of longing and there is plenty of that amongst the Palestinians and Israelis that I met recently  in Bethlehem – a deep longing for peace. But is there any hope of that longing being fulfilled?  Not much.  Most Israelis and Palestinians I met seem to have lost all hope, even the Christians. The situation is truly grim with the occupation causing untold damage to both sides. And yet, as human beings – and even more so  as Christians – we are hard-wired to keep on looking for signs of hope and faith and love, however hard that may be.  Perhaps because of this, or perhaps because in a mysterious way, God puts that longing in us, signs of hope do sometimes appear in the most unexpected places. One of these unexpected places for me was a small village near Bethlehem called Beit Zakariya.

I was in Bethlehem with the World Council of Churches’ Ecumenical Accompaniment Programme in Palestine and Israel as a human rights monitor this year, and one day our team was called to Beit Zakariya because an animal stall had received a demolition order from the Israeli authorities.

Beit Zakariya, along with 85% of the Bethlehem Governorate, is in a part of Palestine which is under full Israeli military and civil control, known as Area C. There nothing, including an animal stall, can be built without Israeli permission, but permission is seldom given, so people build anyway and take the risk of their structures being demolished, as was the case with this ramshackle animal stall.

The animal stall under threat of demolition [Photo: EAPPI/E.Strachan]

The animal stall under threat of demolition [Photo: EAPPI/E.Strachan]

As human rights monitors, we were called to take notes and to meet and discuss the next step with the head of the village, Abu Ibrahim. Beit Zakariya has had many demolition orders against its structures, so the threat of a new demolition should have been a sad occasion. But everyone was smiling. It is also very poor: young people leave because they have no work and no chance of building homes for themselves. What houses there are cannot be expanded or developed – they have corrugated iron roofs and no proper sewage system because, being in Area C, the Israeli authorities will not allow them.  But this day everyone was smiling.

Abu Ibrahim, head of the village of Beit Zakariya [Photo: EAPPI/E.Strachan]

Abu Ibrahim, head of the village of Beit Zakariya [Photo: EAPPI/E.Strachan]

The animal stall demolition order [Photo: EAPPI/E.Strachan]

The animal stall demolition order [Photo: EAPPI/E.Strachan]

EA Ingrid, the villagers and the demolition order [Photo: EAPPI/E.Strachan]

EA Ingrid, the villagers and the demolition order [Photo: EAPPI/E.Strachan]

The village is surrounded by nine illegal Israeli settlements which were built on some of the village’s own land. In the 1990s nearly 300,0000 square metres were confiscated by the Israeli authorities for that purpose. “After we lost our land we started crying,” said Abu Ibrahim. But that day everyone was smiling. Why?

Some Beit Zakariya houses with the Israeli settlement of Gush Etzion in the background [Photo: EAPPI/E.Strachan]

Some Beit Zakariya houses with the Israeli settlement of Gush Etzion in the background [Photo: EAPPI/E.Strachan]

Because a little baby had been born to a young village woman after thirteen years of waiting. A month before, after thirteen years of marriage, Noura, Abu Ibrahim’s daughter, had given birth to a child – a boy called Ibrahim.

Everyone was thrilled. For a while, the injustice and misery of the occupation, the poverty of village life and the oppression of the surrounding settlements was forgotten because there was new life in the village. After years of longing Noura had had a child.

Not everyone’s longing for a child is fulfilled just as not everyone’s longing for peace is fulfilled, but we are asked to keep hope alive. In so many ways this new birth was a very simple, ordinary thing, but it was an icon of hope for me. Ibrahim’s birth brought hope of new life to the village of Beit Zakariya just as the birth of that other little Bethlehem baby, born in an animal stall long ago to Mary and Joseph, brings hope of new life to the world. Let’s pray that somehow that hope is kept alive in what is called the Holy Land.

Noura and baby Ibrahim [Photo: EAPPI/E.Strachan]

Noura and baby Ibrahim [Photo: EAPPI/E.Strachan]