“Bethlehem was always viewed as a different category, because it was not viewed as a militant area,” David Makovsky, director of the Project on the Middle East Peace Process at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy in D.C., told me. But that changed after the Second Intifada. “There were suicide bombers that came from adjacent areas.” The wall stopped the suicide bombers. But to Bethlehemites, it felt like military occupation.
The wall has limited the religious observance of Bethlehem residents. “We used to go and pray in Jerusalem during Easter,” Baboun told me. “For Christians, we would go to the Church of the Holy Sepulchre; for my Muslim Palestinian citizens, the Aqsa Mosque,” she said, referring to two famous holy sites in Jerusalem. Now it has become far more difficult for worshippers from Bethlehem to attend services in Jerusalem.
The economic effects are devastating as well. The city’s economy has stagnated, and development has stalled as travel to and from Jerusalem has grown arduous. According to the Bethlehem city government website, unemployment there has reached 27 percent. “Bethlehem used to be much more a center of commerce. But it has become increasingly cut off from the rest of the world,” Erakat told me. “There is constant economic strangulation. All lifelines to Jerusalem have essentially been cut off.”
But Bethlehem’s problems also have sources closer to home. The Palestinian Authority is plagued by corruption and incompetence. In 2006, according to its own attorney general, government officials pilfered as much as $700 million. Documents leaked in 2015 purported to show that one official had asked Bahrain for $4 million to build an expensive private residence.
One notable exception was Salam Fayyad, who served as prime minister from 2007 until his resignation in 2013. He placed great emphasis on institution-building, rooted out corruption, built infrastructure, and improved the Palestinian security forces. The economy grew, and the international community applauded his efforts. But leaders have since let such efforts lie fallow, leaving mayors once again on their own. Extremism, while traditionally not a major force in Bethlehem, also creates pressure throughout Palestine and contributes to factional infighting.
The constant limbo makes good governance elusive. “Until you have a deal that gives dignity to both,” Makovsky said, “whatever progress there is on the ground won’t be locked in. Things won’t be stable.”
For now, residents of Bethlehem rely mostly on their own resilience to create lives for themselves. And, sometimes, on prayer. When I asked Baboun what she prays for each year during the tree-lighting ceremony, tears came to her eyes. “Every year,” she told me, “I pray [to] God that next year when I light the tree, I will say, ‘Thank you God for achieving peace in our part of the world.’ Every year, I wish and I dream to say ‘Thank you God.’”
“For me, peace is the world.”