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For Arab Christians, Getting to Bethlehem Involves Checks, Imbalances

22 Dec 2014 – By Judith Sudilovsky

BETHLEHEM, West Bank (CNS) — Coming to Bethlehem during Christmas is like a family reunion for Afif Hazboun.

He had been standing in front of the Christmas tree in Manger Square for less than 10 minutes, and already two cousins had greeted him warmly, exchanging news and pleasantries.

A native of Nazareth, the 48-year-old Catholic is following the tradition that his father — who was born in Bethlehem and went to live in Nazareth — began with him as a child: Hazboun brings his wife and children to visit the city every Christmas.

It also warms his heart, said Hazboun, a photographer, to be able to spend time with so many of his relatives.

“In Nazareth, we are only one Hazboun family,” he said. “My family here can’t come visit me, they need to get special travel permits.”

Citizens of Israel, Hazboun and his family said that their own experiences crossing what is known as Rachel’s Tomb checkpoint into Bethlehem have varied. They are normally asked to present their identification cards, and sometimes they are just let through.

“They don’t mind us getting in, they just don’t want us coming out,” he said.

On the return trip, they are usually stopped by the Israeli soldiers at the checkpoint, he said.

This year he took a back way into the city, because last year his car was pulled off to the side, the family belongings were taken out and searched, and, he said, they were herded “like cows” into a room for a body check.

“It was disgusting,” he said. “I am an Israeli citizen, and even if I wasn’t they should respect people.”

Sometimes the line leaving through the Bethlehem checkpoint is backed up several cars deep and takes a considerable time to get through as the soldiers check everyone who is leaving. There is a separate checkpoint for pedestrians as well.

While technically Israel forbids its citizens from entering the West Bank for their protection — during the intifada some Israelis who mistakenly entered Palestinian cities or were lured into Palestinian territory via the Internet were murdered — Arab citizens of Israel are normally unofficially exempt from the ban.

All Palestinians from the northern West Bank must travel a roundabout road in order to reach Bethlehem, and during the Christmas season, though travel restrictions are eased, Christians must nevertheless have special travel permits to visit Bethlehem.

The Latin Patriarchate of Jerusalem said this year, Israel issued some 25,000 travel permits for West Bank Christians as well as some 700 travel permits for Christians from Gaza for the entire Christmas season, which also encompasses the Greek Orthodox Christmas in January.

Hazboun’s wife, Nardin, 41, a civil engineer, described going through the checkpoint: “It is not a comfortable feeling when they see me as an Arab and stop me.”

Her younger son, Jowan, 8, said he is scared when he sees the soldiers.

“They have real guns,” he said.

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Tags: Middle East Christians Palestine Israel Bethlehem Holy Land Christians