The Shepherds’ Fields, outside the ancient heart of the town to which Mary and Joseph came to be registered, were in their day home to people living an insecure nomadic life on the edge of an inhospitable desert. In two millennia, the same thing might be said. Though the area is now built up, it is strangely quiet. Jerusalem can be seen, just five miles away, but it is inaccessible to most Palestinians. They are shut in behind ‘security’ walls which enforce the Israeli government’s apartheid laws. At dawn there is no great bustle of people going to work because for most there is no work. The great city which was the source of employment for most people is closed.
Today Bethlehem is still a place of refugee camps to which people fled in 1948. They have never been granted proper human rights and they have not been allowed to return to their homes. Generations of Palestinians have grown up here, with little work, poor education, and the supervision of impotent UN monitors.
But look more closely at the Shepherd’s Fields, and there is worse. The YMCA has a hostel whose mission is to rehabilitate boys and men who have been systematically tortured in Israeli prisons. They used to bear the marks of torture, but their captors, including the infamous G4S organisation, now resort to methods which leave no physical evidence on the body, but shatter the minds of the victims. They have often suffered what is known as ‘shaken baby syndrome’, and the shattered fragments of their minds have to be rebuilt. Innovative therapies have been developed here and at other specialist places in Palestine, to try to mend the damage.
The modern day successors of the shepherds have nowhere to pasture their flocks. Many have been forcibly ‘settled’ by the Israeli government, only to have their villages taken over time and again when Jewish settlers move in. The water for the flocks which once issued from natural springs has dried up, as Israel digs deep wells to syphon off the water close to the surface. It is then freely available to Jews, but rationed for non-Jews. What was once a free resource for the flocks must now be bought by the tanker load, and is often stolen back by Israeli authorities in order to force the herders and their animals to move from areas that the Israelis want for themselves.
Is there no saviour for these people? As the world acknowledges a former terrorist and jailbird who brought an end to apartheid in South Africa, can we recognise that the most fitting tribute to his life would be to end apartheid everywhere? And can we then bite the bullet, in the knowledge that only sanctions and divestment, which brought justice to South Africa, will bring an end to the apartheid in the Holy Land.
Tom Ambrose lives in Cambridge