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Bethlehem history – from 19th century on

Contributed by Arab Educational Institute on 30.05.2006:


(see the previous item “Bethlehem History – until 19th century” for the earlier history of Bethlehem)

The 19th century was a time of momentous changes in Bethlehem. The French revolution of the late 18th century promulgated the principles of freedom, equality and fraternity. Napoleon applied them to serve expansionist European wars. Due to the introduction of new forms of organization and technology in what was called the “industrial revolution,” the European powers built up enormously powerful centers of production in the main cities of Britain, France and Prussia. New means of transport – trains and steamships – facilitated communication and traveling. As part of their industrial drive, the European powers searched for new markets to purchase raw materials and sell their products.

In the decades to come, this economic need would decisively influence the European powers’ attitude towards the Ottoman Empire, now fast becoming the “sick old man” of Europe. Three major aims would govern European behavior:

Firstly, the European powers wished to extend the system of Capitulations that dated from centuries ago, to the point that Western merchants could act completely independent from Ottoman judiciary, tax regimes and other policies.

Secondly, the European powers once again started to covet the religious minorities as pawns in their attempts to acquire a foothold inside the Ottoman Empire. Each power chose some favorite group for protection, such as the Maronites and Uniate Greek-Catholics (France), the Greek Orthodox (Russia) and, to some extent, the Jews, Protestants and Druzes (Britain).

Thirdly, while the European states were certainly powerful enough to bring about the disintegration of the Empire, rivalry between them as well as knowledge about the potentially disastrous consequences of such an event for the military balance inside Europe made the European states deeply wary of any unilateral attempt to control the Ottoman Empire from outside.

Mohammed ‘Ali

With his campaign in Egypt at the turn of the century, Napoleon was the first to get a territorial foothold in the Empire. Due to Britain’s concern about its Middle East land route to India, a combined British-Ottoman force stopped the campaign in Palestine. But despite its relatively short, three-year duration, it had a powerful effect upon the consciousness of the peoples living in the Ottoman areas. In addition to their military power, the French brought in a superior organization, scientific approaches and modern political ideas. The physical European presence on Egyptian territory showed that the Ottoman world was lagging behind in all aspects of life. Both among the common people and the rulers, locally and in Istanbul, a feeling sprang up that something had to be done to come to terms with the new times.

A first attempt was made by Mohammed ‘Ali, an Ottoman officer of Albanian origin, whose forces drove Napoleon out of Egypt. Mohammed ‘Ali imposed himself on the Ottoman Sultan as an independent ruler of Egypt, and introduced a range of Western modernist reforms in the local administrative and economic system. Under the leadership of his son Ibrahim Pasha, Palestine was conquered and brought under Egyptian control for a period of 10 years (1831-40). As in Egypt, a modernist drive was introduced in Palestine with the purpose of making all citizens equal under secular law. The Christian millets especially gained in freedom and rights. They were allowed to buy new lands and expand old properties, including religious places of worship, and to set up institutions such as schools, convents, clinics, orphanages, and clubs. The Bedouin incursions in the countryside were curtailed and taxes strictly imposed.

All this deeply disturbed the local power balance. During 1834, as a result of new tax policies and forced conscription, the inhabitants of the Moslem quarter of Bethlehem, as well as neighboring Christian town Beit Jala, joined a larger rebellion against Ibrahim Pasha, but were ruthlessly crushed or uprooted. The Moslem quarter in Bethlehem was destroyed (although rebuilt later on). It was a difficult time for Bethlehem. In the same year of 1834, an earthquake damaged the haraat of the town as well as the Church of the Nativity. Eight years later, the Greek Orthodox gained the right to do restoration work on the roof and floor, and to plaster the walls. Since then the interior of the Church has essentially remained unchanged.

External meddling

The years of Mohammed ‘Ali witnessed the introduction of European consulates in Jerusalem which took care to protect and expand the freedom of merchants from the countries they represented. Foreign clergy established themselves, too, keen to providing leadership to local religious communities and bringing them under the aegis of a foreign church. In 1831 the French attained a diplomatic victory when the Turkish Sultan accepted a new Greek-Catholic or Melkite millet in the system. The Russians, from their side, persuaded the Sultan to give them special status as protector of the twelve million Greek-Orthodox Christians in the Empire.

From their side, the British chose local Protestants as their natural protégés but, given the small number of Protestants in the Middle East, the British government also flirted with the idea of taking the Jews under its wings. In 1839 the British established a consulate in Jerusalem with this purpose in mind. A proselytizing effort was started to turn Jews into Protestants, as part of a larger vision to restore ancient Israel along Christian Zionist lines. There were also the first signs of a British interest to encourage Jewish immigration into Palestine. The general atmosphere remained one of deep rivalry among the powers. Internationalization of the holy places became a favored option primarily to keep them out of each other’s hands.

In the 1840s the French played up the question of the holy places once again, mainly for the sake of internal European politics (the manipulation of relations with Orthodox Russia and Catholic Austria). By then the relations between the Greek-Orthodox and the Franciscans at the Church of the Nativity had reached a low point; there were conflicts about the ownership of the keys for the main doors as well as a quarrel about the disappearance of a star located at the place where Jesus was born. The mingling of religion with politics was perhaps inevitable given the larger context of European rivalry but seemed an astounding disgrace to many visitors. The skeptical Mark Twain, a famous American writer, remarked: “The Priests and the members of the Greek and Latin Churches cannot come by the same corridor to kneel in the sacred birthplace of the Redeemer, but are compelled to approach and retire by different avenues, lest they quarrel and fight on this holiest ground on earth.”

Crimean War

Due in part to this local conflict manipulated from outside, the French, English and Russians were jointly drawn into the Crimean war (1854-5). While this war, which mainly took place on the northern and western borders of the Ottoman Empire, did not lead to the Empire’s disintegration, the victorious powers – the French and English – could expand their foothold inside the holy places. The Ottomans were on the side of the French and the English (the winners), but they paid a heavy price as a result of European pressure. The Ottomans were forced to allow Christians and Jews to buy estates and own lands. It was then that in Jerusalem, Nazareth and Bethlehem a great many new institutions and orders established a presence. In Bethlehem various churches, monasteries and other religious buildings were founded outside the haraat, along the main entrance streets to the town.

The introduction of Western institutions was facilitated by administrative reforms. The Ottomans introduced modernizing measures that made it easier for the Western powers to function in the Empire. Import and export trade was growing. As for the religious places, the Crimean War led to an arrangement, called the “status quo”, which minutely detailed the relations between the different churches at the holy places, including the demarcation of territories, the possession of keys, and cleaning arrangements. This status quo has henceforth been confirmed by the successive powers in Bethlehem. Nevertheless, quarrels, especially between the Franciscans and the Greek, exacerbated once again by foreign powers and manipulated by the Ottoman Sultan, would periodically affect the holy places.

During the mid-19th century the population of Bethlehem numbered about 5,000 inhabitants: 2,500 Latin, 1,500 Greek Orthodox, 400 Armenians and 600 Moslems.

Opening up to the world

The second half of the 19th century was one of economic prosperity for Bethlehem. The expansion of the Capitulations in the wake of the Crimean War connected its inhabitants to lucrative work opportunities as merchants, agents, guides or money traders. Bethlehemites, such as the Dabdoub, Handal and Jacir families, established an increasing number of trade connections with the Christian West. International exhibitions held in the United States played a pioneering role in attracting Palestinian merchants from Bethlehem. They visited the Philadelphia Exhibition (1876), the Chicago Exhibition (1893), and the St. Louis Exhibition (1904), carrying with them Holy Land products such as mother-of-pearl, olive wood and carved Nabi Musa (Prophet Moses) stone articles.

Some of these pioneers, such as Geries and Ibrahim Suleiman Mansour Handal, settled permanently in New York while Mishel and Gabriel Dabdoub, who received a medal of honor in the Chicago Exhibition, returned to Bethlehem. On the other hand, Hanna Khalil Morcos left the Chicago Exhibition for Mexico and settled down there while Giries Anton Abul-‘Arraj, along with his wife Sarah Daoud, left Chicago for the Republic of Guatemala where both made a fortune selling Holy Land products. Temporary or permanent migration patterns to Catholic countries in South America, an important market for religious products, became common.

There was also a very large increase in the number of pilgrims visiting the Holy Places. Whereas Bethlehem already boasted Franciscan-supported artisanry intended for pilgrims and tourists, it was the middle of the 19th century that brought the number of pilgrims that made mass production profitable. Christmas became an international event with Bethlehem attracting world attention during the last weeks of December. International journals such as the “National Geographic” portrayed local Arab culture as reflecting Biblical customs.

The international attention had a positive affect on the local economy. Small artisanry workshops grew into factories for mass production. Souvenir shops were opened. With the arrival of schools sponsored by the newly established orders and convents, students, especially Christians, became able to learn foreign languages. Many came into contact with European values, tastes and consumption patterns. Textile and embroidery crafts were another growing economic sector.

Bethlehem expanded; the historical center with its haraat became surrounded with new houses and villas of the successful. In order to construct these and other buildings, stone quarrying and masonry (Bethlehem and Beit Jala stone is of especially good quality) became a lucrative business. Around the turn of the century, no less than thirty percent of the workers’ force of the Bethlehem area were employed in the building trade, many of them working in what was called the “New Jerusalem” – the new quarters built by foreign powers and institutions outside Jerusalem’s old city, only ten kilometers away from Bethlehem.

An Awakening

The changes brought about by the arrival of the foreign worldly and religious institutions were not limited to the economic. As other areas in the Arab world, Palestine was profoundly affected by the European modernization. Mohammed Ali’s regime and the subsequent reforms in the Ottoman administration reflected admiration for concepts of Western science, evolution theory, progress, equality, human rights, and the separation of church and state. The last aspect was especially important for the Christian groups. It encouraged a view of religion as a private affair. While their status as millet gave the Christians some protection and rights, the new concepts of citizenship and nationhood outside the religious community were felt as opening windows towards the outside world.

In part through the establishment of Christian schools, Christian Arabs became instrumental in translating European writings and dispersing them towards the wider Arab world. They rendered writings about European philosophy, medicine, law and politics directly accessible. In doing so, Christian Arabs and Palestinians participated in an “Arab awakening” which did not yet have a clear direction and agenda but which reflected a growing conviction that a change in the mentality of the Arabs was vital to be able to confront the modern, now European-centered world.

Arab identity

Given that the Christian and other religious groupings in the Ottoman system gradually left their isolation, it became imperative for them to define not just their rights and personal status but also their wider relations toward society. How to relate to the rules of the Islamic community, which still governed the daily life of the masses throughout the Ottoman-controlled areas? Since inclusion into an Islamic community without the protection of the millet system was not an attractive option, some Christian Arabs looked for fresh approaches towards the question of identity.

By the 1850s, both Christian and Moslem thinkers, especially in Syria, started playing with the idea of a shared Arab cultural identity. It should be noted that Arab nationalist thought in its formative stages was born and developed in the Mashreq (Arab East) environment. This vein of thought, originating in geographical Syria, raised the banner of secularism in order to unite the many religious sects in the aftermath of the 1860 massacres of Mt Lebanon and Damascus. (In Egypt, a much narrower form of Egyptian nationalism rooted in ancient Egyptian history appeared. The Arab nationalist idea began to crystallize in Egypt only in the late 1930s).

In Palestine, many new schools adopted Arabic rather than Turkish as a main language of instruction. There was a flourishing of new printing houses, first under the auspices of the missionary orders but later also independently, of new cultural and literary societies, and, around the turn of the century, of new publications. In Bethlehem the first experiment in journalism, “Bayt Lahm” (Bethlehem), monthly review, began in September 1919 by Yuhanna Khalil Dakkarat and Issa Basil Bandak.

Arab nationalism

It should be kept in mind that the new Arab renaissance was restricted to a part of the intellectual and literary classes only. It was still remote from the life of the masses, which then unquestionably adhered to the ethos of Islamic community identity. Moreover, the proposals being made were not revolutionary; they pleaded for more space for the Arab identity within the larger Ottoman system. A very few thinkers, primarily in Syria and Lebanon, introduced a more political form of nationalism based upon a shared Arab identity of language, culture and fate. Christian thinkers were among them. They came to have a disproportionally large influence on the subsequent advent of Arab nationalism.

An expression of an early nationalism were the first Palestinian Arab protests in 1891 against the immigration of Jews to the country and the news about the Basel conference of 1897 in which Theodor Herzl announced the official aims of the Zionist movement. Zionism strove toward the establishment of a Jewish home in Palestine yet without taking into account that 90% of its inhabitants were Arabs.

The disproportionate role of the Christians at the initial stages of Arab nationalism must be placed in the context of the time. New structures of identity and belonging were coming forward while not yet finding definite shape. Christian influence could grow at a moment when the majority of Islamic Arabs were uncertainly groping for a compromise between Islam, which was basic to their identity and beliefs since ages past, and the newly Western-inspired wave of modernization. A quantum leap in the spread of national awareness took place when Moslem Arabs gradually joined their Christian brothers in large numbers in the aftermath of deteriorating Arab-Turkish relations as a result of the ruling Young Turks’ policies (1909-1915).


During the turn of the century Bethlehem counted somewhat less than 10.000 inhabitants. There was an emigration movement at the end of the 19th century as a consequence of the new opportunities for marketing the Holy Land products in the Americas, but usually the people stayed there only for a brief time. It was poverty and the large scale recruitment into the Ottoman army before and during the First World War which induced many families to leave, or to convince their sons to leave. Since the beginnings of the modernization of the Ottoman state, in the 1850s, Christians were recruited into the army; yet unlike the Moslems, they could still get exemption by paying a fee. (It has been reported that several wealthy Moslem families in the Bethlehem countryside converted to Christianity in order to evade conscription). However, from 1909 on, this became much harder to do, even though it is documented that at the time Christian families could still get exemption if they contributed trees – vital for their agriculture – to fuel the Ottoman war machine.

The First World War was a time of bare poverty. Older Bethlehemites still recount stories of themselves or their family eating the excrements of horses to stay alive during a particularly harsh and cold winter. Many young Palestinian Christian men from Bethlehem and Beit Jala decided to quickly find a Palestinian bride and to leave for countries like Honduras, Bolivia, Brasil and Chile, where relatives had already explored the possibility of earning a livelihood. Many smuggled themselves out of the country illegally, using their imagination and persistence (for instance, teenagers were smuggled out of the country in a nun’s habit). During World War I, 13% of the Christians of Bethlehem left the town.

Contradictory promises

World War I shook the existing power configuration and would have unforeseen consequences for the future of the Middle East. In general, the Arab nationalist circles and modernist reformers supported the West. The nascent Arab nationalist movement started to entertain hopes to establish independency in the Arab districts of the defunct Ottoman Empire. The British High Commissioner of Egypt, McMahon, made a promise to Sherif Hussein of Mecca to that effect. In exchange, Sherif Hussein launched an Arab revolt out of the Arabian Peninsula into Jordan and Syria in support of the British war effort (the revolt was famously associated with the figure of Lawrence of Arabia). Then a classic example of “British perfidy” took place. In 1916 the British and French secretly annulled the promise by agreeing to split the Ottoman Middle East up amongst themselves (the Sykes-Picot agreement). The Holy Places, including Bethlehem, were thought to come under an international administration.

One year later, another contradictory promise was made. The British issued the Balfour Declaration, granting the Jews a homeland in Palestine even though they constituted less than 10% of the population at the eve of the war (60,000 Jews vs. over 600,000 Arabs).

Essentially, the British had curried favor with the Arabs by promising an independence they would never get. After the war, the defeated Ottoman Empire was divided at the San Remo Conference, April 1920, between the English and the French in accordance with the Sykes-Picot agreement and disguised under the “mandate” system issued by the League of Nations. The Western powers decided that the British mandate over Palestine should bear a clause in which the Balfour Declaration was confirmed.

Bethlehemite solidarity with their fellow Palestinians was deeply entrenched. Thus, when an American commission of enquiry, King-Crane, arrived in Bethlehem on 17 June 1919 to ascertain the wishes of the local inhabitants about their future, they found that “in that old Biblical city all the delegations showed a very careful agreement concerning the unity of Syria and Palestine, wanted complete independence if possible, and were opposed to Zionism and Jewish immigration.”

British mandate

The British Mandate authorities favored the employment of Christians in the lower and middle higher echelons of the administration as officials, interpreters and advisors – somewhat in the same manner as Western powers had recruited the services of local Christians during the regime of Capitulations. Through their contacts with the Western world, many local Christians had acquired a Western taste and life style; they were better educated, and spoke Western languages. Up to 40% of the administrative posts were occupied by Christians even though their proportion of the general population was not higher than 10 %. It even seems that the British brought in Maronites and Syrian Catholics from Syria and Lebanon to serve in the administration. This may partly account for the presence of a community of Syrian Catholics in Bethlehem up to the present-day. Many elderly people living in Bethlehem can still tell stories about how they admired British efficiency in organizational matters.

This does not mean that the Christian population accommodated the British presence. After the wave of emigration prior to and during the First World War, an emigration pattern established itself among the Christian population, and many people contacted their relatives to find out about the economic chances of staying temporarily or permanently abroad. During the 1920s and 1930s the emigration pattern continued, to some extent joined by the Moslem population. With the competition of the Jewish economy in Palestine, some professions faced a difficult time. This was especially so for stonemasons and quarriers. After the Jews introduced the use of cement, many people in Bethlehem and Beit Jala lost their jobs and joined the émigrés.

Migration was a very difficult decision, and not just because of the segregation from one’s family and community and the uncertain economic prospects. Many of the émigrés lost citizenship because of the Palestinian Citizenship Law of 16 September 1925. When the British announced that those who were absent during the war would forego their right of citizenship, a Bethlehem area “Committee for the Defense of Arab Emigrants’ Rights for Palestinian Citizenship” was established to protest restrictions against returning. It was pointed out that Jewish immigrants into Palestine were hardly confronted with any restrictions. However, the committee did not succeed in influencing British policy significantly.

Successful emigrants

Many émigrés had a hard time yet some were successful abroad and sent back payments so that their relatives at home could build spacious houses. During the 1920s and 1930s mansions arose in Bethlehem, usually at some distance from the historical center of the town. Some emigrants became famous indeed. The Moslem Shuman family, at the moment of departure in possession of ten pounds of gold, later on earned a fortune in Latin America to come back home as the founder of what would be one of the largest banks in the Arab world, the so-called Arab Bank. The Christian Lama brothers from Bethlehem developed an interest in photography and cinematography. On their way back to Bethlehem they decided that they would have better opportunities in Egypt to start a film business. They made the first silent movie in Arabic and later established one of the largest film houses in Egypt.

Despite their connections with the British, those Arab Christians who stayed behind were destined to become part and parcel of the national movement in Palestine. At the beginning of the century a second “aliya” (immigration) wave of Jews took place, to be followed by other and larger waves in the 1920s and 1930s. Increasingly, Arab land was bought for Jewish agriculture. Whereas the Jewish presence on the land, organized centrally through a complex of institutions, was able to press their claims upon the British, the Arab cause primarily rested upon the power of a few leading Moslem families from Jerusalem who were weakened by internal rivalries. The Arabs also possessed less diplomatic and lobbying skills. They essentially fell back upon the impact of disturbances that originated in the streets of Jerusalem where conflicts around holy places sparked conflagrations that reached out towards the wider Palestinian countryside.

Palestinian nationalism

In the 1930s, especially 1936 through 1939, Bethlehem witnessed much upheaval including a six-month general strike to force Britain to stop Jewish immigration. Public protests were staged by students, and men and women of Bethlehem. Many were arrested and sent to detention camps. Armed resistance against British forces, which began in 1936, was spearheaded by Bethlehemites Ibrahim Khulayf and ‘Issa Abu Qaddum, who were an integral part of Palestinian resistance led by ‘Abd Al-Qader Al-Husayni and Syrian Arab military leader Sa’id Al-‘Aas. Khulayf, Abu Qaddum and Al-‘Aas were killed in British military ambushes.

A Jewish State

After each disturbance or protest, the British installed a commission to find out the reasons behind the unrest and to propose a solution that usually satisfied neither Arab nor Jew. During the Second World War, Jewish armed groups pressed the English to grant the Jews more immigration quotas and land. The Zionists also openly stated their desire for statehood. Their desire would become reality after the shocking event of the annihilation of the Jews in the Nazi Germany death camps. World public opinion, learning about the horrors of the camps, sided with the Zionist goal.

The Arab Palestinians were weak and their numbers dwindled, from 90% in 1922 to 70% in 1931 and 60% in 1948. As the large majority of the country’s inhabitants and owning 90 % of the land, they could not absorb the idea that they would have to pay for the European crimes committed against the Jews. They stuck to the diplomatically ineffective attitude of refusing any other solution than an Arab state in the whole of Palestine. In 1947 the United Nations, who received the authority to decide about Palestine’s future after the British had acknowledged their inability to control the unrest, decided to divide the country into an Arab and a Jewish state, with the Holy Places, including Jerusalem and Bethlehem, to come under international administration.


Despite the political unrest, the period of the Second World War was a time of economic expansion. Individual Bethlehemites found employment and the town grew somewhat. The real shock for Bethlehem would come with the war of 1948, a war which led to independence for Israel but a “nakba” (disaster) for the Palestinian Arabs as hundreds of thousands had to flee their country and hundreds of villages, including Christian ones, were destroyed.

Immediately after the UN partition plan, fighting started between armed Zionists and Arab guerrilla groups set up by locals who were aided by volunteers from the neighboring countries. A low-scale war continued up until April 1948 when, due to a massacre in the Jerusalem village of Deir Yassin executed by a Zionist band, many Palestinians started to flee their homes. On May 14, 1948 the British administration left. The next day the Zionist leader Ben Gurion announced the declaration of independence for the new state of Israel. Thereupon the Arab armies entered the country, and, as the Israeli army cleared the countryside from many Palestinian villages, the Zionists gained the upper hand due to their greater organizational and military competence. Israel expanded the territories allotted to it by the UN proposal with some 20%, occupying West-Jerusalem as well. Jordan occupied East-Jerusalem and the West Bank, including Bethlehem.

Bethlehem did not escape the upheavals of 1947-1948. In March 1948, a Bethlehemite member of Palestinian Jihad resistance, Anton Daoud, who was the chauffeur of the American Consul General in Jerusalem, was believed to have placed the explosives which blew up the headquarters of the Jewish Agency in retaliation for Zionist terrorist acts such as the blowing up of the King David Hotel where many Palestinians were killed. On March 27, 1948, a Zionist military envoy was ambushed at Bethlehem’s Dheisheh suburb in which 25 settlers were killed. This 30-hour confrontation was concluded when 149 survivors were escorted to safety by British forces. However, as a direct result of the fall of the strategic Al-Qastal village and the death of Palestinian military leader ‘Abd Al-Qader Al-Husayni, as well as the gruesome massacre of Deir Yassin, all taking place in early April 1948, the uprooting and transfer of large segments of Arab population from the Jerusalem area began.

The Bethlehem area “Central Committee to Aid the Refugee” estimated that at this period 50,000 refugees arrived in the Bethlehem area before they moved to other places in Palestine and Jordan. However, by September 1948, the official number was estimated to be 21,030. Relief work at this juncture was organized by the Red Cross, two years before the United Nations Relief and Work Agency (UNRWA) stepped in to oversee the setting up of three refugee camps in Bethlehem: Dheisheh, Azzah and ‘Aydah camps.

As a result of the war many wealthy Bethlehemites lost houses along or in the vicinity of the Hebron-Jerusalem road inside Jerusalem that they had previously built or bought but which were now in the Israeli-controlled part of the city. Of greater influence for Bethlehem’s development was the afore-mentioned influx of refugees, in part from Christian towns but primarily from the Moslem countryside. In one year Bethlehem’s population grew from 9,000 to 35,000, with additional refugee camps near its borders. Bethlehem’s Christian population and charitable institutions did the most they could do to provide hospitality to the incoming refugees. The castles in the countryside were handed over to refugees for temporary shelter. Many of the refugees attempted to find home in the historical hara area, in small cellars or terraces, wherever they could find a place. The people had to live in crowded and cramped conditions, with new houses built upon or alongside the existing ones. Those Bethlehemites who could afford to do so rented their houses to the newcomers at low rates and left for the areas around the town.

The Jordanian regime

The Jordanian presence in the West Bank and East-Jerusalem was welcomed by a segment of the Palestinian higher classes. In 1951 nationalist Palestinians assassinated King Abdallah of Jordan near Al-Aqsa Mosque in Jerusalem. In subsequent years the Jordanians, ruled by the young King Hussein, tended to favor the development of the East Bank rather than the Palestinian side of the Jordan. Jerusalem and Bethlehem also became neglected. Since it was complicated for tourists to pass through Israel into Jordan, the tourist industry suffered. Foreign travelers had to enter the Mandelbaum Gate in Jerusalem and cross a no man’s land zone in order to reach the Jordanian side of the cease-fire line.

The neglect of the West Bank had political overtones as well. The presence of a large number of Palestinian refugees across the Jordan created an inherent lack of stability inside the Kingdom, which made the Jordanian monarchy particularly sensitive about anything that could disrupt the Kingdom’s balance. One such threatening element was the establishment of nationalist, leftist or communist-inspired movements in the West Bank. Many Christians joined such movements, in part for reasons of identity. Nationalism, socialism and communism emphasized the commonality of Moslems and Christians as equal members of a suppressed class or nation. For Christians, such an approach was more attractive than seeing themselves as members of a Christian religious minority subservient to a larger Islamic community. In Bethlehem too, secret nationalist and leftist societies sprang up, especially among the Greek-Orthodox community. The Jordanian authorities outlawed many of them.

Israeli occupation

After 1948, the 1967 war was a second shock for the Palestinians and the Arab world. Not only were the lost lands not recovered, but the Israelis also became the occupiers of the West Bank and the Gaza Strip. They came in control of the whole of British mandated Palestine, and, with the occupation of Sinai and Golan, additional Egyptian and Syrian lands as well.

In Bethlehem people still remember how Christians and Moslems jointly flocked for shelter into the Church of the Nativity after hearing the fighter planes cleaving the sky. Some stayed for weeks in the Church, others hid in the countryside, afraid of retaliation. The Silesian Convent near Beit Jala as well as other Christian places offered refuge. The Israeli army distributed leaflets in the western parts of the town, encouraging people to flee the area and cross the Jordan. Unlike 1948, few people succumbed to this propaganda. But it was a very difficult time for the Palestinians. As high as hopes were in advance of the war – the Egyptian president Nasser was proclaimed to be the coming liberator – just as deep was the disillusionment that subsequently sank in. Immediately after the war Israel annexed East-Jerusalem and expanded the city’s boundaries. No less than 16 square kilometers were confiscated from Bethlehem lands. In the coming years, new Jerusalem suburbs would arise on former Jordanian lands.

Politically, the Palestinian people were disoriented. With the Arab armies and countries discredited after the lost war, the guerrillas of the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO) filled the political void and kindled the nationalist hope of the Palestinian population. Especially in the PLO’s more leftist groupings Christians took leadership positions. It is in part to their influence, as well as that of their fellow secular Moslems, that, at the end of the 1960s and the beginning of the 1970s, the PLO movement opted for a secular vision of a democratic state in Palestine rather than an Islamist state.

Uneven development

For a long time, up until the end of the 1970s, the administration of Bethlehem took care to walk the fine line between loyalty to the national Palestinian cause and a special relationship with Jordan King’s Hussein combined with a certain co-existence with the Israeli occupation. The well-known former Bethlehem mayor, the late Elias Freij, cultivated this policy. His major consideration was the need to protect the tourism industry and the symbol of the Church of the Nativity from political controversy.

Despite this, the tourism and developmental profile of Bethlehem was not a happy one. Although individual souvenir shops were able to expand their income with the arrival of tourists coming through Israel, the development was distinctly one-sided. Israeli buses made a stop in front of the Church, brought the tourists or pilgrims into the Church accompanied by an Israeli guide, and then made another stop at a souvenir shop on the way back to Jerusalem. This all kept the visit as short as possible. Most working class Bethlehemites saw their family income increasing, yet the community did not develop under occupation.

One important exception was the establishment of Bethlehem University in 1973. Formerly the Freres School, it was opened at the encouragement and with the financial support of the Vatican as well as contributions from foreign donors and individual tuitions. It represented one broad light in the educational field. In general the level of education at elementary and secondary levels declined. Many less educated people outside the service sector earned their income in Israel as day laborers, but there was no way to invest such income into development projects benefiting the city or the region as a whole.

On the international level, the Palestinian cause seemed to move forward for a time. Bethlehem welcomed the increasing international legitimacy that the PLO gained after the mid-1970s and the 1980s, especially in the Third World and Europe. However, the facts on the ground did not improve; institutions whose pupils or students participated in political demonstrations were often faced by oppressive measures such as temporary closures, and the prospects for the establishment of an independent Palestinian state looked remote. The level of services in the Bethlehem area slowly declined. With a new economic crisis in the mid-1980s, and people starting to become desperate about a national solution, the time became ripe for something more drastic.


At the end of 1987 the Palestinian people embarked upon a massive uprising, the Intifada. Literally every town and village in the West Bank and Gaza Strip participated. Youngsters took to the streets and threw stones at Israeli soldiers. There was an immense amount of solidarity among the people. They organized daily life through neighborhood committees and other decentralized structures. Israel reacted with shock and brutality; the wide-scale beatings and collective punishments made headlines throughout the world. As many schools were forced to close, teachers were involved in “illegal education,” conducting their classroom jobs at private places or at local institutions.

A well-renowned episode of the uprising was the tax revolt initiated by the people of Beit Sahour in 1989. They refused to pay taxes even when the tax officers under the guidance of the Israeli army confiscated all their possessions. Many local organizations took up the national cause, including church-related institutions. In fact, the local churches showed active support for the essentially peaceful and moderate aim of the Intifada; the establishment of a Palestinian state alongside Israel with (East-) Jerusalem as its capital. The Catholic Church received its first Palestinian patriarch with the dedication of Michel Sabbah from Nazareth in 1987. The Greek Catholic and Anglican bishoprics, too, adopted Palestinian heads. Their declarations in support of the human, collective and religious rights of the Palestinian people were robust and caught worldwide attention.

However, this did not mean that religion was played up by the politically active among the Christians. As in the Jordanian time, the leftist secular organizations within the PLO had a particularly strong following among the Christians in the Bethlehem area. The same motives were prevalent now as then, with one additional element; the deep ambiguity felt by the Christians towards the rising of Islamicist-oriented movements after the beginning of the Intifada. These movements openly advocated the establishment of a Moslem state in Palestine, with the Christians apparently relegated once more to a second-class millet status.

In the course of the years the leftist groups did not fare well. Under the influence of the fragmentation and decline of the Communist movement after the downfall of East-European regimes, the leftist movement in Palestine appeared on the defensive, too. In the wake of the Intifada they had a hard time developing a strategic answer to the well-entrenched Islamist trend.

The Oslo Peace Accords

Unfortunately, the Intifada did not lead to more than a broad international acceptance of a two-state solution to the Israel-Palestine conflict as envisioned in the Palestinian declaration of Independence of 15 November 1988. The situation on the ground did not develop in a positive direction. By lack of political follow-up, the movement lost momentum. During the 1990s, the Palestinians longed for peace but lacked political strength and inner self-confidence. A significant part of them accepted the Oslo Agreement of 1993, while the secular leftist parties and the Islamist movement opposed it.

The Oslo Agreement represented an ambiguous turn of events. Despite the high expectations and the positive media coverage, the peace was in subsequent years felt at a symbolic level only; on the ground the reality became more difficult than ever. The newly established Palestinian National Authority (PNA) had a very limited power. Even under the government of Israel’s Prime Minister Rabin, signatory of the Oslo Accords, the settlement process expanded exponentially. Israel’s closure policy after the desperate attacks by Islamic militants in Israel’s cities made thousands of Palestinian laborers jobless. From 1996 on, with the advent of the Israeli Netanyahu government, the peace process remained in a stalemate.

After having lost 16 square kilometers of lands immediately after the 1967 war, Bethlehem suffered further land expropriations to accommodate the establishment of a series of settlements which, together with their connecting roads, literally surrounded the town and robbed it from any space left for future expansion or agricultural development. An international outcry accompanied Israel’s announcement in 1997 of the building of a Jerusalem settlement that was virtually at Bethlehem’s doorstep. Landowners from Bethlehem and Beit Sahour joined a series of marches to protest the Har Homa (or, in Arabic, Abu Ghneim) settlement but in subsequent years its infrastructure was slowly built up. As yet there are no signs of cessation of the building activities.

After the Oslo Agreement, economic conditions in the Bethlehem area witnessed a steep decline. For some years the unemployment ratio reached levels never felt before in the West Bank, up to 40%. Bethlehem was especially affected since closures prevented laborers to leave the town for their work in Israel while, conversely, tourist buses were often prevented from entering the town. Moreover, the Oslo Agreement defined the West Bank into different zones, some of them fully under control of the Palestinian Authority, others, the large majority, under Israeli authority, and still others under a combined Palestinian civil authority and Israeli military rule. This artificial arrangement led to a fragmentation of the West Bank and made it possible for Israel to announce so-called “internal closures” whereby Palestinians were not permitted to cross from one into another zone. The Bethlehem area, including the towns of Beit Jala and Beit Sahour, was itself split up in zones. As a consequence, during “internal closures” some institutions could hardly be reached by locals working or studying there.

All these problems equally affected Christians and Moslems. While over the years Christian Bethlehemites used to be disproportionally represented in white-collar professions (doctors, teachers, lawyers) as well as in tourism-related jobs, there is now a tendency among Moslems to close the socio-economic gap. Christians have kept up an emigration pattern responsible for their declining numbers in the society. The overall proportion of Christians in the West Bank and Gaza is now 2 %, down from about 10% at the beginning of the century. If we compare the censuses of 1922 and 1997, we find in 1922 a total population of Bethlehem of 6,658 including 5,838 Christians, and in 1997 a population of 31,984 including 9,595 Christians. The urban conglomeration of Bethlehem-Beit Jala-Beit Sahour still incorporates 50% Christians. The major factors affecting emigration are the economic and political insecurity. Without knowing about their future jobs and career perspective, it is still common that Christian Bethlehemites contact their family members abroad or follow advanced studies elsewhere and decide to stay. Since the majority of émigrés are males, the emigration has also negatively affected the gender balance in the Bethlehem area, with around 55% Christian women left with 45% men.

With the new Israeli government under Ehud Barak the conditions remain uncertain. In preparation for the Bethlehem 2000 celebrations roads have been renewed, hotels built, and the beginnings of a Palestinian tourist infrastructure set up. The new dynamism, accompanied by a certain economic recovery, has emanated a spark of hope. Yet almost all Bethlehemites feel that without a solution to the overall Palestinian issue a real secure future is not likely to come soon.

Looking back into history

Many Bethlehemites look back towards history with a certain nostalgia. One of them is Mr. Sarras of Beit Jala, a former stonemason, who has nine children and who is now pensioned. Here he gives a few facts and views of Bethlehem life as it was before 1967.

Work: Before 1948 there always used to be work. The stones with which Sarras built were thicker and therefore more protective than they are today. Building a house was rewarded by 20 Jordanian piaster, building an arch by 30 piaster. Peasants used to work and sleep on the land. Life was simple: people worked, ate and slept. The people of the Bethlehem area were dependent on agriculture, there was no industry.

Leisure: Instead of watching TV, one drank and told stories in the large courtyard in front of the house together with the extended family. All the family lived in one house. The grandfather was the head and family members paid mutual respect. Unlike now, people in the neighborhood were used to seeing and visiting each other and having fun together.

Home: There was no electricity, lamps worked on oil and later on kerosene. As a result, all bodies were covered with the remains of smoke.

Drinking and food: Every house had cisterns in which rain was stored. Women went to local wells, often with animals, to bring water. They cooked on an oven made of mud and wood. One used wheat mills to grind the wheat. Bread and cookies were made from flour mixed with oil. For lunch and dinner, people took a diet of wheat, lentils, rice, figs and olives. They took their share from one big plate.

Washing: People put water in a big bowl and washed themselves without soap.

Solidarity: People used to live together in solidarity, until economically motivated emigration started to fragment the community. At present three quarter of the Sarras family lives in Chile. Traditionally, people in Beit Jala resisted to selling land to Zionists despite attempts by intermediaries.

Men and women: Men dared not to speak to women whom they did not know; otherwise, they would get a severe beating.

Clothes: A woman used to cover all her body till the ankle with a “takhsira,” and to also cover her head. Clothes for men were usually white with a long jacket and wide pants. The bride wore a special headdress (“shatweh”), and the man a Turkish “tarbush.” Everybody had only two sets of clothes: one for occasions and another for all the remaining days. Men did not have underwear. Despite the poverty, there was taste and respect.

Marriage: The groom’s family would ask the bride’s family for her hand. The groom’s family would pay the “qisweh,” sharing in the costs of the clothes, mattresses, and furniture in the new house. The wedding would be celebrated with horseriding and rhythmic dances and songs. New couples would start with only a few mattresses and blankets in a room, and perhaps some primitive tapestry.

Transportation: People used to walk on foot or on donkeys. After 1967 transportation improved, cars came into vogue but people also traveled on camel to Jordan.



Copyright: Arab Educational Institute, Bethlehem, 1999

Printed in Bethlehem, Palestine RAI house of art

Copies can be ordered at the

Arab Educational Institute-Open Windows,

P.O.Box 681, Bethlehem, Palestine via Israel

Fax: 00-972-2-277.7554


The Culture and Palestine series

The Culture and Palestine series explores various expressions of the Palestinian culture and heritage, including material items such as types of food or popular arts, and immaterial ones like traditional stories and customs. It is the series’ purpose to involve the Palestinian school communities in learning to know about, and to express knowledge of Palestinian culture; to understand its relevance for contemporary situations, and to communicate it to a public abroad.

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