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Middle East Abeja Dispatch

Bethlehem: May the Millennium Bring Peace
December 22, 1999

"O little town of Bethlehem, how still we see thee lie! Above thy deep and dreamless sleep, the silent stars, go by!"

I can't help but sing that song as Jasmine, my parents, and I ride the minibus, a sherut, to Bethlehem, only 10 miles from Jerusalem. We pass through the Israeli controlled security check out of Jerusalem into the Palestinian town of Bethlehem. But now the town is not so little, or so still, since it's the middle of a week day. The market is bustling, and workmen are busy fixing the streets.
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The streets are still being prepared for the big day. Do you see Jasmine, standing up top, under a Palestinian flag?

Yes, all of them, or so it seems! Bethlehem is preparing for the Christmas and Y2K celebrations, because they're expecting a record number of tourists. The streets are being repaved with white stones, to look like they did in Jesus' time. (I doubt if they'll throw lots of trash or donkey manure to finish the effect.) Signs on every corner announced which country had funded that particular street or project-Japan, Sweden, Norway, Canada, Spain, Germany, France, Greece, and the United States all donated money to help the Palestinian Authority spruce up Bethlehem for the holidays.

Manger Square, in front of the Church of the Nativity, is dressed in new white stones with a huge stage set up, and a clock counting down to the New Year, donated by the City of Athens to the City of Bethlehem. Palestinian flags, along with the flags of the other countries who are helping with the renewal of the city, flutter proudly around the square. Unarmed Palestinian security officers stand guard on every corner, in their smart black uniforms. Souvenir shops sparkle with their brightly colored wares. The Palestinian Authority Post Office is on the corner, next to the Palestinian Authority Tourist Office, selling Palestinian Authority stamps!

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This brand new fountain, shaped like the Bethlehem star, made a nice place to rest.  It hasn't even been filled with water yet!

I am in complete shock. You see, I was in Bethlehem 10 years ago, when I was in high school. In 1989, Bethlehem was a completely different world! You could cut the tension in the air with a knife, except that carrying a knife was illegal. There were many more security guards, standing on every corner, carrying UZIs; but they weren't Palestinians, they were IDF (Israeli Defense Forces).

What I remember of Manger Square is a crowded area, full of cars and busses. Instead of clean white walls, the streets were covered in red, green and black graffiti, the colors of the Palestinian flag. Pictures of children injured or detained by the Israeli police were plastered on the walls, and small, ripped, old Palestinian flags fluttered rebelliously from the telephone and power lines across the roads

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This is completely different! Sparkly new and ready for the Millennium!

In 1989, the Palestinian Arabs of the West Bank and the Gaza Strip were in the middle of what became known as the intifada or the "shaking off." After being captured by Israel in the 1967 War, children in the Palestinian Territories of the West Bank and the Gaza Strip grew up in a state of occupation. The majority of these people had never participated in the terrorist acts that put Palestinians on the front page of the newspapers, and most did not support them. A group known as the Palestinian Liberation Organization (PLO), led by a man named Yasir Arafat, claimed to speak for the Palestinian people, but the people did not feel heard. They felt frustrated, angry, and tired.

The intifada arose, spontaneously, from protests following a traffic accident in which four Palestinians were killed in the Gaza Strip on December 8, 1987. The protests spread among the people, and soon images of young Palestinians, armed only with stones, facing IDF soldiers in full riot gear with guns, were flashed across televisions around the world. The more that Israel tried to stop the protests with tear gas, rubber bullets, and arrests, the worse they looked to the world. It seemed there was nothing Israel could do to stop the protests that didn't raise objections from human rights groups and the international community.

Vocabulary Box

UZI - automatic weapon created in the 1950s by Uziel Gal
Spontaneously - arising from a momentary impulse

The intifada took the PLO by surprise. I, for one, was there, and became very sympathetic to the Palestinians. Let's face it, seeing kids and old women protesting in front of heavily armed guards is a much better public relations campaign than bombing airplanes and busses--the tactics that radical Palestinians had been using up until then.

Change has come rapidly in the last 10 years. Many people believe that the intifada had a lot to do with that change. Maybe it helped the PLO recognize that terrorism isn't really a good way to get international sympathy, because in 1988, Yasir Arafat renounced terrorism and recognized Israel's right to exist. It deepened the division within Israeli society between those who wanted to hold onto the West Bank and the Gaza strip as part of the "Eretz Yisrael" or "Greater Israel," and those who were willing to trade the land for peace with their Arab neighbors. It brought sympathetic international attention to the Palestinians, who up until then were mostly viewed as vicious terrorists.

A lot of negotiating and compromise has happened since the PLO renounced terrorism and acknowledged Israel's right to exist in 1988. There now exists a Palestinian Authority, which has been given limited powers to run the local governments in several cities in the West Bank and the Gaza Strip, including Bethlehem. (We'll be learning a lot more about all of this soon, I promise!)
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The city of Athens donated this countdown clock!

I stand in the peaceful square, watching the clock tick away the minutes until the Millennium. When I read the newspapers, it seems that the peace process here is moving painfully slow, and I wonder if there will ever really be peace. There is still so much in the way of agreement. But coming to Bethlehem and seeing these amazing changes gives me great hope. The clock is a countdown towards peace, I believe, and not towards renewed violence.


p.s. - Please e-mail me at

Abeja - Nazareth: Trouble Brewing in Jesus' Hometown
Kevin - Theodore Herzl: A Jewish Visionary
Christine - A Little Town Called Bethlehem
Nancy - St. Helena Hits the Spot
Kavitha - The Facts of Fasts
Team - The New Millennium: All Dressed Up and Nowhere To Go
Kavitha - Tidings of Comfort and Joy…and Exploitation: The Buck Stops With You

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