Our Times 3

Reopen Bethlehem!


He only says, ‘Good fences make good neighbors.'
Spring is the mischief in me, and I wonder
If I could put a notion in his head:
'Why do they make good neighbors? Isn’t it
Where there are cows? But here there are no cows.
Before I built a wall I’d ask to know
What I was walling in or walling out,
And to whom I was like to give offense.
Something there is that doesn’t love a wall,
That wants it down . . .’

“Mending Wall” by Robert Frost

Born in Moscow to a Palestinian father and Russian mother, Leila Sansour made Open Bethlehem, a documentary film about her family and home town.

On January 23, more than 150 people packed the Salle Martial-Caron Theatre in Winnipeg’s Université de Saint-Boniface to see a screening of the 90-minute film, hosted by the Canadian Catholic Organization For Development and Peace. Executive Producer Waël Kabbani was on hand from Montreal for a Q&A session following the 90-minute screening.

Viewers watched as the Israeli army destroyed homes, 70 year-old olive orchards and countless livelihoods with impunity, to build a security wall through Bethlehem and enclose its mostly Palestinian residents, who have no armed forces. The Israeli government claims the wall’s to protect Israel from terrorists, though it treats Palestinians like penned cattle.

Relevance to Canada

Open Bethlehem released in 2015, is relevant to Canada because the Canadian government’s policy on Aboriginals evolved over centuries from decimation to assimilation to marginalization, to segregation. This came, in time, to inspire efforts by the governments of South Africa and Israel.

Rana Abdulla, spokesperson for the Canadian Palestinian Association of Manitoba — a non-profit, grassroots collective advocating for Palestinians’ human rights — made a forceful statement in a speech prior to the screening, relating the film to North American settler colonialism.

We are the Canadian Palestinian Association of Manitoba, a non-profit organization that promotes Palestinian and Arabic culture to bridge communities and create a better understanding of the Palestinian cause, culture and heritage.
Before we proceed, the organizers feel that it is important to recognize that we are gathered here on Treaty One Territory. We would like to acknowledge and thank the diverse Indigenous peoples whose footsteps have marked this territory for centuries, including Anishinaabe, Cree, Oji-Cree, and Dakota and Métis Peoples.
As we assert our opposition to Israeli apartheid and our solidarity with the Palestinian people, we feel we cannot speak meaningfully about Israeli apartheid without acknowledging the realities of a similar system here in Canada. Canada’s reservation system and treatment of Indigenous peoples was closely studied by the planners of apartheid in South Africa. Though this is a hidden chapter of our history, we recognize that from its very beginning, the founding of Canada was built on the theft of Indigenous lands, and the genocide and displacement of Indigenous peoples. If you are with us in opposition to Israeli apartheid, we encourage your consistent opposition to the elements of a similar system here in Canada.

If you’re familiar with Lia Tarachansky’s On the Side of the Road (2015), which similarly investigates the historic denial of full and meaningful citizenship and the right of return to Palestinian people, you will enjoy Open Bethlehem.

The film focuses heavily on Sansour’s family and friends, and their experiences under the shadow of the wall and beyond. Performances are natural and unaffected; good cinematography and tone keep humour and excitement alive despite the sombre story. There are many high-angle and deep-focus shots, and the film flows smoothly from scene to scene.

Shot over more than 10 years, the film is dedicated to Sansour’s father, the late Anton Sansour, an eminent professor who helped found Bethlehem University, a leading Palestinian educational institution.

When Gen. Allenby captured Bethlehem in December 1917, the British described it as “a Christmas present for the British people.”

The film shows the drab, uneven, grey wall, up to nine metres high, double the height of the Berlin Wall, its starkness broken by checkpoints and watchtowers. Palestinians are prisoners. A military permit is necessary for passage between Bethlehem and Israel; 3,200 work permits may be issued daily to a population of 170,000.

An optimistic Sansour returns to Bethlehem. With her is her husband, a British novelist, to create a coalition of prominent international Christians, Muslims and Jews. The coalition’s objective: to get the Israeli government to allow business and Christian tourism to flourish in Bethlehem, and to allow people to visit the city for as long as they like.

Tourism-oriented economy

65 per cent of Bethlehem’s economy sprang from Christian tourism, but Israeli control is strangling that revenue. Regarding tourism, she says “You have no choice if Jesus was born in your town.”

We also see workers cooped up in claustrophobic narrow corridors. They have to wait in a queue from 3:00 am to get permits to reach their places of employment on the other side of the wall. Their wait is usually six to seven hours long.

Located at Bethlehem’s northern entrance, the grave of the matriarch Rachel is revered by Muslims, Christians and Jews. Many had to move out of the Rachel’s Tomb area because of the wall’s construction.

Tearful women watch the demolition of their erstwhile homes while their husbands are dragged away by Israeli soldiers.

Armed with this potent documentary, producer Kabbani said the focus will be on North America for the next few years, to reopen Bethlehem.

The documentary may have been 15-20 minutes shorter, but is well shot and directed. Open Bethlehem is an important film that contributes to our understanding of contemporary Palestine, and the many roadblocks to peace.

Watch the trailer here, or purchase the DVD.


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