Israel Report

MarchApril 2004         

The Strange Case of Bethlehem

By P. David Hornik - March 1, 2004
At a time when a film about Jesus is taking America by storm, the fact that the town of his birth, Bethlehem, has become predominantly Muslim rather than Christian is not exactly a hot item. Just half a century ago Bethlehem was 80% Christian; today it’s down to 20% and constantly dwindling. Like Christian Arabs elsewhere in the Palestinian Authority—an entity whose official religion is Islam and whose basic laws reflect the Shari’a—Bethlehem’s Christians have been subject to discrimination and harassment and are abandoning the town to those aiming for an Islamic monolith in the Middle East.

But the home of the Church of the Nativity and of Rachel’s Tomb, a focus of prayer and pilgrimage for both Christians and Jews, is not only succumbing to grim Islamic totalitarianism. Even worse, Bethlehem is now a terrorist haven. This despite the fact that it’s within walking distance of Jerusalem, the capital of Israel, a country with a modern army of hundreds of thousands whose citizens are the victims of Bethlehem terror. The situation is bizarre and calls into question the competence and sanity of the Sharon government.

Last Sunday morning, February 22, a suicide bomber literally walked into Jerusalem from Bethlehem, got on a bus, and blew himself up, killing eight Israelis and wounding scores. No Pearl Harbor or September 11, this event was neither unusual nor surprising; in fact, it was predictable.

For a couple of years, Israel and the Palestinian Authority have engaged in a strange dance over Bethlehem. In April 2002, as part of Operation Defensive Shield, Israel took control of the city and terror attacks from it stopped. But in mid-May, under pressure from the Bush administration, Israel obligingly withdrew and handed the city back to the PA. On May 22, a Fatah terrorist from Bethlehem blew himself up in Rishon Lezion, killing two Israelis and wounding many more. The Israeli army then reoccupied the city for several days, arresting suspects from the Palestinian intelligence forces. But by June, it had restored the city to the willing stewardship of Dar al-Islam. Promptly, on June 18, a Bethlehem bomber killed nineteen on a Jerusalem bus. Later that month, another emissary of the town was only able to wound five on a Jerusalem street. Israel, concluding this latest experiment wasn’t working so well, re-retook Bethlehem.

But the extraordinary chess game continued. In August the Israeli government, apparently concluding that two months of enforced quiet in Bethlehem heralded the messianic age, yet again withdrew from the city. Indeed, it took all of an additional three months before another Bethlehem bomber struck—killing, on November 21, eleven people on a bus in the Kiryat Menachem neighborhood of Jerusalem.

This time Israel cracked down: it reentered Bethlehem and stayed there a whole eight months, a period in which no attacks were mounted from the city. But in July last year, our government decided it was time to try its—and our—luck again and withdrew. Indeed, from that point so much time went by without a made-in-Bethlehem exploit that one might have thought the Kingdom of Heaven had descended to earth. Until, that is, the morning of last January 29, when my son, sleeping in his flat in the Rehavia neighborhood of Jerusalem, was woken up by a huge boom. Another raider from the enclave just to the south had struck, and the bombed-out bus eventually traveled to The Hague. The eleven dead stayed where they were.

Though I think of myself as a realist, I suffer from terminal naivete. I really thought that at that point we’d take Bethlehem again, not wait to see if the latest mishap was just an aberration. But we didn’t. Our forces were instructed to blow up the home of the bomber and make some arrests—that’s all. Then we waited for the Palestinians’ next move. It came last Sunday.

The Islamists, among whom Yasser Arafat was a pioneer and is still at the forefront, want to drown the Judeo-Christian world in blood, and they’re succeeding. They’ve got Bethlehem and the Temple Mount, the parts of the Holy Land they control are almost empty of Christians and the Jews are supposed to be yanked out by their government, and they’re gunning for the rest. It may be that the Bush administration, out of a mix of geopolitical calculation and coziness with the Saudis and others, has a hand in making the Israeli government behave in ways that appear bizarre, suicidal, and criminally irresponsible. If Islamists can take over the town of Jesus’ birth, drive the Christians out, use it as a base to slaughter Jews in Jerusalem, and get away with it—we’re not doing well.

P. David Hornik is a freelance writer and translator living in Jerusalem whose work has appeared in many Israeli, Jewish, and political publications. He can be reached at:

©2004 -

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