A Season in Bethlehem: Unholy War in a Sacred Place

A Season in Bethlehem: Unholy War in a Sacred Place

A Season
in Bethlehem:
Unholy War
in a
Sacred Place

Joshua Hammer
Free Press,
287 pages, $24.00

In 1948, when the nation of Israel came into being, Palestinian Christians numbered about 110,000 in the West Bank and Gaza. Today, writes Newsweek Jerusalem bureau chief Joshua Hammer, the number is about 50,000. According to a recent Newsweek article, about 30,000 of those live in or near Bethlehem, a traditionally Christian city just six miles south of the Old City of Jerusalem. Therefore, as goes Bethlehem, so goes Palestinian Christianity.

These are not unfamiliar facts to CHRISTIANITY TODAY readers. CT has reported on the results of Palestinian Christian emigration under pressure for many years. For example, in a 1998 article, Bishara Awad, the president of Bethlehem Bible College, called the Christian presence "precarious" and wrote that the percentage of Palestinian Christians had dropped from 17% in 1900 to 2% of the Arab population in the Holy Land. Both the numbers and the percentages are alarming. But they do not tell a story. They leave us wondering what has happened and what is happening. If you want to know the story, read Joshua Hammer's new book A Season in Bethlehem, as well as his Newsweek article and Newsweek's online interview.

Here is the picture in broad strokes: For centuries, Bethlehem was a largely Christian city. Despite their minority status among Arabs in the Holy Land, Christians in Bethlehem and neighboring Christian enclaves have had a relatively cordial and calm existence vis-à-vis their Muslim neighbors. Indeed, from the arrival of the Muslim Caliph Umar in 637 until the persecution of Christians began under Caliph al-Hakim in 1009, relations between the Christian and Muslim populations were friendly. In more recent centuries, Bethlehem has been dominated by seven Christian tribes and one Muslim tribe. Neighboring Beit Jala has been (at least since the 16th century) occupied by five Christian tribes drawn to the hillside village by its proximity to the holy sites of Bethlehem.

This harmonious existence changed once again in the 19th century when Ottoman rulers began pressing Palestinian Christians into service as porters and servants for the Turkish army. Many emigrated to Latin America in order to escape this forced servitude. Another chapter unfolded after the British liberated Palestine from Turkish rule in 1917-18: The British forcibly disarmed the Ta'amra, a violent Bedouin tribe, and forced them to give up their nomadic existence for village life. Most settled in nearby Za'atara', while some members of the tribe settled in Bethlehem proper. It is this group of families that formed the core of what became the most troublesome group of militants in the Bethlehem area.

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Hammer recounts how in recent years younger members of this group were radicalized by some of the more brutal aspects of Israeli occupation. He says the current al-Aqsa uprising was "fueled by young men … ripped out of schools as teenagers, beaten and made to languish in Israeli jails for years, then tossed back onto the streets to brood and wait for the opportunity to get even." As a good journalist, Hammer must acknowledge these contributing factors, but he also takes note of the "pattern of corruption and contempt for the rule of law" in the Palestinian Authority, which in turn creates an atmosphere in which "young toughs" can be hired as security guards and enforcers who operate outside the legal system.

For much of A Season in Bethlehem, Hammer focuses on the Abayats, one of the Ta'amra families, and shows how a thuggish family that lived by crime and random violence was turned into "the well-organized shock troops of the al-Aqsa intifada." Hammer duly records the radicalizing factors that turned these thugs into revolutionaries without ever suggesting that their violence should in any way be considered justified.

No venom here
Though most of Hammer's book dwells on the violence of the Muslim Ta'amra tribe, an interesting portrait of the Bethlehem area's Christians emerges from his account.

These Christians, Hammer notes, "were subject to the same hardships as everyone else." Yet, "the venom toward Israel that [he] frequently heard in Palestinian Muslim homes was noticeably absent here." The Christians he interviewed "heaped scorn on the Ta'amra fighters who had made the lives of Beit Jalans hellish." One particular family told him they were Palestinian nationalists,

but the al-Aqsa intifada had tested their loyalties. The corruption of Arafat's inner circle disgusted them; they were furious at the leadership for instigating the uprising. They were also angry at Israel for its brutal acts of retaliation … [b]ut Israel was like an older brother who had lost his way, whereas the Palestinian Authority under Arafat, they believed, could never be trusted.

This Christian suspicion of the Ta'amra stems from incidents in 1936 during the Arab Revolt against the British mandate. Over the years, various Muslim groups tried to buy property in Beit Jala and to change its Christian character. During the 1980s, Christian residents saw big changes and many emigrated. The Palestinian Authority came to power in 1995, and according to Hammer, local Christians consider that event "the turning point toward catastrophe." A long-term Christian mayor died the next year, setting the stage for further Muslim encroachments. By 1999, the Christian citizens of Beit Jala, wrote the U.S. embassy and "accused the Palestinian Authority of plotting to drive out the Christian population and replace them with Muslims. 'In ten years,' the letter declared, 'we fear that there will be only a few Christians left in Beit Jala.' "

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Snipers' nests
In the fall of 2000, all hell broke loose. Christian families in Beit Jala found their homes invaded by the Tanzim militia, who found them particularly convenient spots for sniping at Israeli residents in the Jerusalem suburb of Gilo. The Israeli Defense Force fired back from positions in Gilo, knocking out windows, pockmarking walls with bullet holes, and igniting fires. Many Christians sought security elsewhere, and Muslim militiamen took over their homes to continue the assault. Meanwhile, the gangsterlike members of the Ta'amra family were terrorizing local Christian businessmen and extorting protection money from them. Repeated appeals to Yasser Arafat and the corrupt Palestinian Authority brought no relief.

Christians told Hammer they were sure that the militia used their homes not only because of the excellent vantage point for firing on Gilo, but because the Muslim leaders felt that the Christians were not sufficiently radicalized, and they hoped that putting them in the crossfire would draw them directly into the conflict.

By March 2002, the militia had taken over central Bethlehem as well. They had driven out the police and become the de facto rulers of the terrorized town. With a cocky assurance, one of the leaders told Hammer that, even though the Israeli military was looking for him, he felt perfectly secure in Manger Square. "The Israelis know that they can't come in here," he said. "There are lots of alleyways and corners and rooftops where our guys can ambush them. Second, this is one of the holy Christian sites. It would be a propaganda defeat if they came in and shot it up."

Three weeks later, Israeli forces decided that it was worth the propaganda risk. On April 2, tanks rolled into Bethlehem, the various militias took cover in the Church of the Nativity, and thus began a five-week siege that grabbed the stunned world's attention. Unfortunately, as the press reported the tense days in which Israeli snipers picked off militiamen who tried to sneak out for food and in which the clergy in charge of the church appeared to suffer from Stockholm Syndrome and became increasingly supportive of the interlopers, little was said about the years of tension in which Bethlehem and its neighboring villages were terrorized and transformed almost beyond recognition. Hammer's book fills those gaps for Western readers.

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Hammer has little sympathy for the Ta'amra leaders. One leader who now lives in exile, Hammer calls "a sociopath whom the intifada had elevated into a freedom fighter." And Hammer has little confidence in the government of Ariel Sharon, "a man without vision, relying only on escalating military tactics to maintain a tolerable level of terror." He believes that Sharon's "dependence on retribution alone to put down the uprising promised only the perpetuation of the dismal status quo."

A Season in Bethlehem is a moving account of an annus horribilis. It offers no particular hope for the conflict's resolution or for the restoration of Christian society around Bethlehem. Both miracles and massacres are part of Bethlehem's history. Pray for a miracle.

Related Elsewhere

Joshua Hammer's A Season in Bethlehem is this month's selection for CT's Editor's Bookshelf. Elsewhere on our site, you can read an extended interview with Hammer and buy the book online.

More information is available from the publisher, including an excerpt.

Newsweek ran an excerpt.

Hammer discussed the book on NPR's Fresh Air.

PBS's Frontline also covered the Church of the Nativity standoff in Bethlehem.

Have something to add about this? See something we missed? Share your feedback here.

Editor's Bookshelf
David Neff
David Neff was editor in chief of Christianity Today, where he worked from 1985 until his retirement in 2013. He is also the former editor in chief of Christian History magazine, and continues to explore the intersection of history and current events in his bimonthly column, "Past Imperfect." His earlier column, "Editor's Bookshelf," ran from 2002 to 2004 and paired Neff's reviews of thought-provoking books and interviews with the authors.
Previous Editor's Bookshelf Columns:

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