Israel-Palestine is not a large country, the size of Wales and so the distances that Mary and Joseph travelled over Christmas were real enough but not so far to make travelling impossible. The journey would not have been easy, there were political complexities to be negotiated – how would they negotiate around Samaria for instance which lay between Galilee and Judea? There was an occupation by the Romans and it was a consequence of that that was making them have to leave their home at the most inconvenient time. But when they got to Jerusalem they knew that their journeys end was not far. Bethlehem is only about five miles from Jerusalem, just over the hills and that, as St Luke tells us, is where they were heading.
The sad truth is that if the story happened now Mary and Joseph would be unable to make the journey. The remains of Samaria still lie in between Galilee and Judea, Jerusalem is still just five miles from Bethlehem but the problem would come as the couple made their way down the main road that leads from one city to the other. Quite simply they would encounter a wall that divides Israel from the Palestinian Authority, Jerusalem from Bethlehem. Would the holy couple have the right papers, would the crossing point be open, what mood would the guards be in? The wall that snakes around Jerusalem causes problems everyday for Palestinians trying to go about their normal lives, getting to work, to the hospitals, to see relatives on the other side of the wall, to get to their own olive groves on their own land which has been taken from them. The Separation Wall or Fence begun in 2000, called by the Palestinians the Wall of Apartheid is one of the most painful things that you encounter when you visit the Holy Land. It is an affront to humanity and a desecration of the holiness of the place.
So I was delighted that the United Nations Security Council passed a resolution condemning the illegal building of settlements in the occupied West bank and I am delighted that the USA finally saw sense and abstained rather than using its veto therby scuppering the vote. Of course Israel is furious but the authorities there and those who are settlers need to hear world opinion about what is going on.
The terms ‘settler’ and ‘settlement’ are of course as innocuous sounding as the term, ‘fence’ for what is a new Berlin Wall. When I hear the word settler I think of ‘The Little House on the Prairie’, apple pie cooking, Mum on the veranda looking for Pa returning after an honest day working in the fields. It’s warm and homely and courageous. But what is happening in the Occupied West Bank is nothing like that.
I was in the Holy Land in February co-leading the Southwark Diocesan Pilgrimage and I was there again this autumn on sabbatical. The intervening months saw more developments, ever expanding ‘settlements’ which are in fact new towns built on the tops of the hills looking down on Palestinian villages in an aggressive manner. The countryside, the olive groves, the wilderness where Bedouin sheep and goats grazed is being dissected by new roads which can’t be used by Palestinians with the wrong number plates but by Israelis getting quickly between city and settlement.
Neither is it an issue just affecting the countryside of the West Bank. In the Old City, in East Jerusalem, in Silwan, on the Mount of Olives, in Hebron and other Palestinian communities, settlers are moving in. Huge Israeli flags and banners fly from and hang from the buildings, provocatively announcing that settlers have settled.
I’m not being over dramatic when I use the words ‘aggressive’ and ‘provocative’. Walking through the streets of Hebron to get to the Tomb of the Patriarchs and Matriarchs I had to pass under netting that had been strung across the streets to stop Palestinian Muslims on their way to the mosque for prayer being showered with rubbish by the settlers who are occupying buildings in the city centre.
So this UN Resolution is a welcome Christmas gift to Palestinians who are looking for some recognition by the world community of what is happening to them and their heritage, their communities, their future. Recognising the truth and the scale of what has been happening on illegally occupied territory must be a first step towards a true deal for the future. Israelis and Palestinians both deserve to live in peace and security but the evidence is that the settlers and those who support them don’t want that and whilst ever we collude with that for fear of offending the State of Israel I fear that nothing good will happen.
Fortunately, Mary and Joseph got to Bethlehem and through the generosity of an innkeeper they found simple shelter and a place to rest. In that borrowed home, in that ox’s stall God entered the mess of the world and God still does.
you entered our world
in time and place
as Jesus was born.
Bless all who live in the Holy Land
and give them peace.