On Nov. 23, after a suicide bombing in Jerusalem by a Bethlehem man, Israel ordered its army back into Bethlehem and imposed a new curfew on the residents -- keeping them, for the most part, confined to their homes. Since then, few outsiders have been allowed into the West Bank area, and it remains unclear how free the access will be for Christmas celebrations that Israeli authorities said they will allow. Staff writer Bill Broadway, who visited Bethlehem in October, offers these observations about the biblical birthplace of Jesus.
My most vivid memory of Bethlehem is sitting on a stone bench in a colorless room below the Church of the Nativity, watching my guide wipe tears across his cheeks.
It had been a fast-paced day of visiting holy sites, talking with shopkeepers about the foundering tourist business and walking the town's narrow medieval-era streets. I was ready to return to the military checkpoint, where I would catch a taxi back to Jerusalem five miles away.
But Nimer Aweineh, whom I'd hired for the day, wanted to talk -- in the same grotto where St. Jerome lived 36 years and translated the Bible into Latin.
Aweineh told of the great sadness he felt for Bethlehem and the Christian and Muslim Palestinians whose families have lived there for centuries.
He worried about the uncertain future for his daughters, Majd, 12, and Nida, 16, who have grown up with constant fear during the relentless Israeli-Palestinian conflict. And he spoke of the frustration of not being able to move about freely -- as he had been able to do a decade ago while living in the United States.
"The only time I was truly free was when I was outside my own country," Aweineh, 42, said of the years he lived and did odd jobs in Seattle. "I could go where I wanted, camp where I wanted."
Back home, as a Palestinian living on the West Bank, he must get permission from Israeli authorities to travel anywhere, even to his in-laws' village just a few miles from his family's house near Bethlehem.
Aweineh's wandering spirit got the best of him shortly after my visit. On a trip to the northern part of Israel, roughly the distance from Washington to Charlottesville, he was arrested and imprisoned for traveling without a permit.
"He wrote to get a permit for his work" as a guide, Aweineh's wife, Suad, said by telephone this week. She said her husband, who has a degree in English literature, was preparing to take an exam to qualify as a tour guide in the Galilee area and needed to visit the numerous religious and historic sites in that part of the country.
When his permit application was rejected, he and a friend went anyway -- and got caught. He received a four-month sentence but might be released a month early, in February, she said.
The place where he and I had talked not long before was both unusual and strangely soothing. The air was sweet and cool in the grotto -- a respite from the autumn heat outdoors. About 100 feet away, through the church's massive rock foundation, was the Grotto of the Nativity -- the spot where Christians believe Jesus was born and a pilgrimage site for more than 1,500 years.
Above was the sanctuary where 200 Palestinians, some of them armed, had holed up for 39 days with few provisions while Israeli troops camped out on rooftops and in Manger Square. The standoff resulted in eight deaths around the church and ended May 10 after a negotiated agreement.
Much of our tour that day had focused on the scars of the siege: concrete walls with holes made by armored vehicles; a missile hole in the library wall at Bethlehem University, a Catholic institution; a smashed fountain on Paul VI Street, one of the commercial thoroughfares.
About three blocks from the Church of the Nativity, I climbed to the roof of a souvenir factory owned by Jack Giacaman, a Christian whose family has been in Bethlehem for a thousand years and for generations has carved and sold olive-wood manger scenes, stars and biblical figures.
The roof offered an incredible 360-degree vista of the semiarid landscape, with Israeli settlements atop seven nearby hills -- surrounding Bethlehem and nearby towns, an area of 140,000 people. The Giacaman family's olive grove, on a swath of land between the Christian town of Beit Jala and Gilo, a suburb of Jerusalem, has been taken over by the Israelis as a buffer zone between the Jewish neighborhoods and Bethlehem, he said.
Little was said that day of the reason the Israel Defense Forces control traffic in and out of Bethlehem and establish strict curfews: Bethlehem has been a center of terrorist activity for years, Israel says -- a position seemingly substantiated by the November bus attack that killed the Bethlehem bomber and 11 other people.
Residents have learned to cope with curfews, sneaking out to shops to buy bread or to church to worship, said the Rev. Sandra Olewine, the United Methodist liaison to Jerusalem and a member of Christmas Lutheran Church in Bethlehem.
Last Sunday, for the first time during Advent, the curfew was temporarily lifted and members could head to church without fear of arrest or having their car keys taken. Instead of seven or eight worshipers, the church was full, Olewine wrote in an online journal.
"As we greeted one another . . . this morning, there was joy in Bethlehem," she said. "Not a superficial holiday cheer, but a real joy that comes from beholding each other's faces, being together as a community, expressing care and concern for one another."
In an e-mail, Olewine said "rumors are flying" about what will happen on Christmas Eve and Christmas, whether the Israel Defense Forces -- as promised this week -- will allow traditional celebrations to proceed and whether foreign Christians and Christians from other Palestinian territories will be allowed to participate.
No one knows what will come of the violence ripping the country apart, but at least one thing is certain. "Christmas will come -- no army in the world can stop it," Olewine said. "Such is the source of our joy, the core of our peace, the spirit of our hope."