This article originally appeared on VICE UK
Around 2 million tourists visit Bethlehem in the West Bank of Palestine every year. And since the Church of Nativity—built on Jesus's supposed birthplace—was declared a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 2012, that number will presumably keep on rising, with Christians from around the world making the pilgrimage to their Lord and Savior's place of origin.
As the first World Heritage Site listed in Palestine, it was seen as a triumphant step on the road to international recognition by the Palestinian Authority—and it certainly pissed off Israel. But when I join the crowds arriving on tour buses, all of us jostling for our chance to glimpse the star-shaped hole in the ground said to mark the spot where Christ was born, I wonder what there is to celebrate.
The vast majority are whisked straight back to Jerusalem after seeing the church that Emperor Constantine first built in the 4th century, missing the medieval lanes, noisy markets and dusty roads contained within the ancient stone walls of the city. They're also not really meeting any of the locals, and it's these people—understandably—who really tell the story of today's Bethlehem. One of these locals is Johnny Anastas, a Christian I meet in the shadow of the mighty West Bank security barrier.
I've been following Star Street, where Mary and Joseph are believed to have entered Bethlehem a couple of millennia back to deliver the Savior, when I spot them: the formidable West Bank walls marching into the distance. I've seen the ruins of the Berlin Wall, but to witness such a powerful symbol of division still standing leaves me staggered.
"What do you think of our wall?" asks Johnny, snapping me out of my daze. I want to say that nothing had prepared me for the overflowing collage of emotion in the graffiti. That I don't know whether to cry or rage at the declaration of "us and them" that these 25-foot-high concrete shields seem to make. But all I manage is: "I think it's sad."
I instantly feel like a fucking idiot.
"We thought, after the war, that things would be better," says Johnny. "Then they did this."
Work began on the wall in 2002, with the Israeli government thinking it would help to prevent terrorism. This may be the case, but it's also ruined the lives of many people like Johnny. He used to be a well-known mechanic in the area, running a thriving business. All that came to an end overnight when the walls started going up along his street. And if the loss of his livelihood wasn't bad enough, a quirk in their step means his home is blocked in on three sides.
Today, the Anastases run a gift shop full of wooden Christian-themed souvenirs carved by local craftsman from the native olive wood. Most of the ornaments are related to the nativity, but Johnny is keen to show me something he's designed himself. It's a small nativity scene with a jagged, incongruous wall banged in the middle. Crude though it seems, the carving shrewdly captures my feelings—that it's absurd to arbitrarily erect an enormous physical barrier between people.
Selling a few souvenirs to tourists stumbling upon the shop isn't exactly a winning business model, and the Anastases are barely able to make out a living. I have to wonder why they don't leave, as almost everyone else in the area has.
"We can't," explains Johnny, resignedly. "Although this is Palestinian territory, everywhere within 1000 feet of the wall is under Israeli authority. We are not allowed to sell our property, and no one is allowed to build or develop property here."
So Johnny has a stark choice: leave behind the home and business he has poured most of his life and wealth into, or live in limbo, isolated by the walls and subject to nocturnal "searches" by soldiers.
The family opened a guesthouse on the second floor in 2006. The rooms are handsome and homely enough, but the real reason to stay is to experience, for a night or two, what the Anastases live every day. Guests used to be few and far between—mostly friends visiting to lend support—but bookings have increased recently, with people coming from all over the world to see what it's like to wake up to the imprisoning walls every morning. One added benefit for Johnny and his family is that foreign guests deter the military's night visits.
"I'm worried about what the future holds," says Johnny. "We are the last Christians here. Nearly every other Christian family in the area has moved. I don't know what the future will be for us if we stay here."
And yet, despite all that's happened, Johnny doesn't seem bitter or hopeless. He isn't giving up: "We need Christians here, in Bethlehem," he says. "We will keep telling our story."
Resolved on leaving the West Bank through the infamous Checkpoint 300, I startle on arrival at the bright sun setting through barbed wire and sentry points. Crossing the border with me is a group of men who hurry ahead through a cage-like tunnel until they reach a young Israeli woman sitting in a booth.
One by one, the Palestinians press their identity papers up against her window. The woman barks questions, stern and sometimes aggressive. After being loudly shouted at, one man is told to wait behind.
Soon, it'll be my turn. It's a daunting experience, and there are hardly swathes of tourists. But when I think of the buses ferrying people to and from the Church of the Nativity, I'm glad I'm going this way—with locals, heading back to Israel.
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