This Christmas in Bethlehem I watched an unusual procession pass through the not-so-little town’s ancient streets.
The mood was jubilant; a crowd of school children were cheering and the town’s various scout groups marched, playing their instruments.
For the Christian population here, it was a special moment; a time for pomp.
In the middle of the procession, a member of the clergy carried an a elaborate silver frame mounted on a staff.
Inside the frame was what’s believed to be a fragment of the manger in which Jesus was born.
On order of the Pope it has been returned to Bethlehem from Italy where it was taken centuries ago.
The procession passed down Star Street – so-called because in the Christmas story it was this route which Mary, Joseph and a donkey took, past inns which were full to a stable where Jesus was born in a manger.
It was an uplifting moment for Christian Bethlehemites, but the mood belied a much wider ongoing struggle for all the people of Bethlehem.
This is the story of modern Bethlehem: a town at the centre of tensions which persist across the Holy Land.
“It’s so hard economically. It’s in a big prison. Our life is limited. No freedom. We feel like there is no justice for any Palestinian. We don’t know to whom we belong,” Claire Anastas tells me.
We had met five minutes earlier. Her home overlooks the separation barrier between Israel and the Palestinian Territories.
It was clear she was keen to tell me her story and share her frustrations.
“I was born next to the Church of the Nativity…” she tells me proudly.
Claire is a Christian; one of a dwindling number of Christian Palestinians in the West Bank.
Over a cup of tea, Claire and I chat about Bethlehem in 2019.
From the many days I have spent in Bethlehem, I have found a place of deep frustration; the people here describe their town as being “strangled”.
They are part of a population of Palestinians with a deep sense of nationality, but no nation.
I guess Bethlehem, at this time of year, is an appropriate place from which to highlight the hopeless stalemate that symbolises the Israel-Palestine conflict.
It’s true that the conflict is no longer framed by the violence seen in decades gone by.
Israelis are no longer subjected to suicide bombings from terrorists among the Palestinian population. And Israeli tanks are no longer a sight in Palestinian West Bank towns.
And yet in those towns: Nablus, Hebron, Bethlehem among them, the tensions persist, the divisions remain and the violence continues.
“It’s another kind of fighting now,” Claire tells me.
She explains that the cumulative psychological impact of being behind a wall and unable freely to travel just a few miles to Jerusalem is devastating.
“We call it like hidden fighting. More than a direct fight to kill us. It’s killing our soul. For me it’s more hurt than other things. When you live injuring your heart slowly, that’s another kind of death. It’s more terrible actually.”
Israel began to build its separation barrier in 2002. It runs the length of the West Bank, separating Israeli Jews from Palestinian Christians and Muslims.
It is the Israeli government’s solution, they say, to counter a campaign of terror by Palestinians on Israeli civilians and infrastructure.
Just yards from Claire’s house, but on the side, I’ve arranged a meeting with Dany Tirza, a colonel, now retired, in the Israeli Army.
“They were shooting from their towns towards the traffic that runs on the main highway of Israel,” Colonel Tirza tells me, recalling the second intifada as it was known – the Palestinian uprising against Israeli occupation of Palestinian lands.
The colonel is the man who built the barrier. He points out that only a fraction of it – in urban areas – is a wall. Most is fence.
“Before the fence was built, there was terror here,” he says.
I interrupt. “You’re talking 20 years ago though.”
“I am talking 20 years ago. That doesn’t matter. The matter is living or not. And that’s the main issue. The main issue is that we want to have good life with the Palestinians. The problem is the Palestinian terror. At the moment that the Palestinian terror will stop and we’ll have some arrangement to live together there is no need for that,” the colonel says.
It’s true that since the barrier was built, attacks by Palestinians on Israelis have fallen to a fraction of what they once were.
But to claim that drop is a consequence of the barrier alone is misleading.
Security cooperation between the Palestinian Authority (the political leadership in the West Bank) and Israel has been a critical factor.
Key to the debate now at the heart of the stalemate is whether the wall/fence is, in 2019, stopping a new wave of Palestinian terror or whether it’s actually now a central barrier to peace and cooperation.
Claire Anastas’s family house is surrounded on three sides by the wall. Her view was once her uncle’s house and olive groves beyond. Now it is concrete.
For West Bank* Palestinians, the wall defines their lives. It is an eyesore of course, but it’s much more than that. (*note: Gaza – distinct geographically and politically – is not a focus of this report, though its status is clearly key to the peace process.)
What they tell you here in the West Bank is that the wall is part of a land grab and a system of apartheid.
Drawing parallels with South Africa is contentious but, Palestinians say, justified, because Israel has maintained and expanded a dual system of law – one applying to Israelis and another for Palestinians under its control.
Coupled with the building of the wall, something else has been happening: the expansion of Israeli settlements inside the West Bank.
Suhail Khalilieh is the head of the Settlement Monitoring Department at the Applied Research Institute, Jerusalem. His job is to monitor the development and expansion of Israeli settlements on the West Bank.
“From every angle, from the north side to the west to the south and from the east we are being surrounded by the settlements…” he tells me as we drive through Bethlehem’s downtrodden suburbs.
We pass derelict shops and houses. “On the right you can see that old stores used to have life in it and they were all closed off.”
Emigration from Bethlehem and across the West Bank is increasing.
A lack of opportunity, high unemployment, high property prices because of a lack of space to build behind the wall pushes Palestinians to claim asylum abroad.
“I am really at this point very doubtful that it will go away soon,” Suhail says as we pass a graffiti covered section of the wall.
We head out of town. He points at a housing complex on the horizon.
“If you look at the left side. This is part of Efrat settlement which is called the seven hill settlement because it stand or extend across seven hills… all illegal,” Suhail says.
“Illegal under international law. The settlements are contradictory to international law; UN resolutions.”
Around 600,000 Jews live in about 140 settlements like this built across the West Bank.
In their own gated communities on the Palestinian side of the wall, Israelis are populating what they believe to be their land.
They receive financial incentives from the Israeli government and yet international consensus is overwhelmingly that they are there illegally.
However the decision in November by the Trump administration that the settlements are “not inconsistent with international law” upended four decades of US policy and has boosted their status and encouraged further construction.
On the day the Trump announcement emerged, I spoke to Uri Pilichowski, a Jewish settler from America who now lives in the settlement of Mitzpe Yericho.
“It’s great news. My reaction is nothing less than celebratory and full of gratitude to the Trump administration. It’s establishing facts that we have known, facts that are clear and obvious and now it’s on the record and we can move forward with these facts having been established,” Uri told me.
Back with Suhail, we are driving along a road he fears will soon be closed off to Palestinians.
“You know the Israelis believe that biblically, or historically this is their ancestors land. The land of Israel,” Suhail tells me.
“But the problem is that it’s also your land?” I say.
“It’s also our land. Still, you have no right to deport people, to force people off their land, only to fulfil a biblical theory. You don’t violate human rights in the name of God,” he says.
He drives to a high point overlooking Bethlehem and, beyond the wall, Jerusalem.
“That’s where we can’t go…” he says pointing towards Jerusalem.
That’s slightly misleading. Palestinians living to the east of the wall can travel though checkpoints to Jerusalem with the correct permits and a vehicle with Israeli plates.
But there is no question that the lives and movements of Palestinians are severely restricted.
And Suhail worries about what life will be like for his children.
“I remember my father telling me that he could travel to Lebanon, to Jordan,” he explains.
“Now I can’t travel easily to Jerusalem over there… Where will my children be able to travel when they are older?”
Having spoken to both locals and to politicians on both sides of this seemingly intractable situation, it’s clear that the level of entrenchment on both sides is huge.
Getting back to the negotiating table will require bold leaders both in Israel and Palestine. Remember Yasser Arafat, Yitzhak Rabin and Bill Clinton back in 1993.
It will require leaders who are prepared to compromise and right now they don’t exist.
Israel’s politics is stuck with the third election in 11 months in March, and the choice is between politicians who want to maintain the status quo and those who want to expand settlements and annex land.
Palestinians haven’t held any elections since 2006. And the disconnect between the people of Palestine and their leaders is huge.
Palestinian politics is also deeply and hopelessly divided between the Gaza and the West Bank. That is as much a barrier to the future as any stalemate with the Israelis.
It is clear that the status quo is not sustainable. Some Palestinians I talk to say there will be an explosion soon; expression of rejection; the need for a fresh start.
I asked Claire if she imagines a day when the wall will come down.
“Yes. I have hope in God,” she says.
“I hope God will bring his angels as soon as possible to destroy this wall to bring peace and light back because peace and light started here. It has to come back. That’s my hope.”
Religion may be the source of the troubles. But it also provides people with hope for the future.