Dec 23 2002

How should Palestinian celebrate Christmas in Bethlehem?

Published by at 12:00 am under Articles,Palestinian politics

Danny Qumsieh has been working hard this Christmas season to raise money so that Bethlehem’s only local radio station can continue in its tradition of covering the holiday events. As manager of the radio station he was frustrated that he was unable to find commercial sponsors because of the devastating economic situation due to the Israeli reoccupation of the city. So he turned to NGOs and Christian organizations asking if they would agree to financial underwrite the radio’s important work. Just when he felt confident that the station will be able to go ahead with the coverage, an unexpected turn of events occurred. Israeli soldiers decided on December 23 to take over the building housing the station. The staff of the radio station and the entire building was evacuated and the station had to go off the air.

For seven years now, Radio Bethlehem 2000 has provided live audio coverage of the traditional Christmas Eve parade, Christmas Eve Carols from Manger Square and Midnight Mass from the birth-place of Jesus Christ. I should know. I was there when we first started this radio tradition in the Christmas of 1996.

Along with three other Palestinians we started this radio station after the Israeli army exited the city and the Palestinian Authority welcomed radio license requests. Cell phones had been new at the time but we were able to convert roving journalists into live broadcasters using them. That first Christmas eve was so special. Radio is a great medium to create atmosphere. I remember walking around in Bethlehem and you can follow Christmas carols sung by the famous Lebanese singer Fairuz from shops and stores who were all tuned in to our 89.6 frequency. We had been working non stop for nearly 24 hours when a delivery person brought us some food. I still remember a delicious shawerma sandwich delivered to our studios by a local restaurant who wanted to show support for what we were doing.

Covering the Latin Patriarch’s parade was so important for the local community. For decades this Christmas eve parade has taken a tradition of its own. Different local community and church leaders meet the patriarch at predetermined positions on the route from Jerusalem to Bethlehem. The parade culminates at Manger Square. Our coverage that day and every Christmas since allowed the public to know precisely what was happening every step of the way. I vividly remember an old woman who called the station to thank us for the coverage saying that even though she has been unable to go out to see the Catholic bishop, our reporting helped her to feel as if she was there.

This memory has been brought back to me this Christmas, because of the insensitive Israeli act. The radio station located about three miles from the center of Bethlehem has no strategic advantage for the Israelis. It is in the valley below Bethlehem at the entrance of Beit Sahour, the traditional shepherds field. At 3:30 pm, on Decembe 23, soldiers arrived at the Arrart building that houses the radio station on its fourth floor and ordered everyone outside. No explanation was given.

Shutting down a voice of reason and joy. Cutting off a medium that plays Christmas Carols and tries to keep the holiday spirits despite the anger and destruction around seem totally crazy and insane.

Since November 22, Israeli soldiers reoccupied this Palestinians city for the 15th time since they evacuated it in Christmas of 1995. They entered the city because they said that a suicide bomber had come from the Bethlehem region. He was renting a home in the village of Khader south of Bethlehem. A 24 hour continuous curfew was placed on the city and its surroundings ever since. The curfew was eased a couple of times during an entire month.

A few days before Christmas, Israel announced that it was planning to ease the curfew and other travel restrictions to allow Bethlehem’s Palestinian Christians to celebrate the Christmas. The radio station was beaming carols and announcing Christmas related events when this ugly act took place.

The entry and closure of the radio station was most probably decided by an officer who had no idea that a radio station was in the building or that it was playing Christmas carols. Sooner or later someone might or might not say that this was a mistake. After all he is a soldier who only cares for security. Such is the nature of a foreign military occupation. Certainly an occupying force is not responsible to care about the feelings of Palestinian Christians and Christians around the world who sing silent night and oh little town of Bethlehem.

Israeli stupidity, not withstanding, Palestinians will keep tuning in their radio and looking up in the heavens with the hope that they can one day see the angels carols song two thousand years ago to the shepherd become a reality. “Glory to God in the Highest and on earth Peace.”

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