Modern-day nativity in Bethlehem

 When Nahed Fawaregh became pregnant earlier this year she and her husband felt blessed, she was due to give birth in the first days of December and would travel to the nearby maternity hospital in Bethlehem. Nahed and her family live in a small village called Ma'sarah (meaning Olive Press) where the countryside is spotted with olive groves and vineyards. There is no maternity clinic in Ma'sarah so she would travel to nearby Bethlehem to give birth. While many of the villagers drive small herds of goats and sheep, Nahed's husband drives a taxi, so getting to the hospital wouldn't be a problem. Nahed, who just turned 20, was the subject of family affection as her baby grew, friends gave her small gifts, old ladies knitted little jumpers and everyone made sure she ate what she wanted. Nahed was a radiant picture of health and happiness. At midday on November 27 Nahed went into labour. She had already prepared a bag and she set off with her husband in the taxi for Bethlehem. They went on the only road that isn't dug-up and blocked-off with piles of earth and rubble by Israeli bulldozers. But only certain people are allowed on this road: Jewish people who live in the heavily guarded settlements. The innocuous term "settlements" doesn't accurately describe the expanding colonies: cities and towns built on the highest land, taken by military force and inhabited by some 400,000 people, many of them east-european immigrants. The local people are left with the ever-diminishing gaps between the colonies and the roads that join them up, the water they need for irrigation diverted to the Israeli-occupied land. The Fawareghs knew they were forbidden to travel on the Jewish-only road but it was an emergency. They prayed that they wouldn't run into an Israeli patrol, but they did. A jeep with four soldiers of the Israeli occupation forces caught them and held them at gunpoint. The soldiers said nothing even though it was obvious that Nahed was in pain. Her waters broke and Mr Fawaregh pleaded with the soldiers, they told him to shut up. Nahed began to bleed but the soldiers still said nothing, they just kept them waiting. Finally, after two hours, they let them go. This was neither a mistake nor an isolated case. This is part of the routine persecution of the Christian and Muslim people of Palestine, it is Israeli policy. In fact, this is so common that the Israeli occupation forces are being issued with medical kits to deal with women who "choose to give birth at checkpoints". Bethlehem is under curfew, the streets are patrolled by tanks. "This is a prison" explains Mitri Raheb, a resident priest: "if you leave your house you will be shot". Tank crews shout through loudhailers as they roar past the houses: "don't come out, you animals". The afternoon that Nahed arrived in Bethlehem a Mr Rabayia, who had gone to get some bread for his family, was shot dead by occupation troops. He was shot in the back of the head with an explosive bullet. Often such murders are reported as crossfire, people here explain in despair "that means that we cross and they fire". Helplessly, I watched his mother and wife gnashing their teeth and tearing at their hair and clothes with grief. In Bethlehem, a statue of the Virgin Mary stands above the entrance of the maternity hospital called the Holy Family, she is riddled with Israeli bullets. When Nahed finally arrived at the hospital it was clear that the long delay had been critical. Her baby boy was dead. Nahed tells me her story quietly, she is full of grace, "I offer up my suffering to God" she says. As I look at her I can't help thinking that you can see the whole story in her face, not just her own story but Palestine's story. Sean Hawkey is Editor of Action and Website Manager, World Association for Christian Communication, 357 Kennington Lane, London SE11 5QY, UK Email: web: Tel: 44 (0)20 7582 9139

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