Bethlehem: Occupied by Palestine

It’s not something we normally think about, that the Palestinians might actually be occupying territory illegally under international law, but it’s technically true.  The fact is ignored by international bodies, particularly the United Nations, which actually would be the party claiming the territory as its own.  How does this all work?


Referring back to West Jerusalem, Israel has struggled for years to enable global recognition of its sovereign rights over that half of the city, let alone the Eastern section.  The UN (and European Union) maintain that West Jerusalem is part of the so-called “Corpus Separatum” that was delineated by UN General Assembly Resolution 181 on 29 November 1947, the same that recommended splitting Britain’s mandate into a Jewish and Arab state.  The third section, which included Jerusalem, would be governed as a “separate body,” internationally, and by the United Nations.


That third section also includes Bethlehem.  Why was it included?  Bethlehem is sacred to Christians, making its proximity to Jerusalem a convenient way to connect the city’s three central faiths.  The majority of UN states at the time were also Christian, making the city a matter of their own religious concern.

The War of Independence that followed saw Israel capture West Jerusalem, but East Jerusalem, the Old City of Jerusalem and Bethlehem were captured by Jordan.  Only in 1967 did Israel grab hold of the Christian holy city, but in 1993, Israel kind of relinquished it.

The Oslo Accords created a tiered system of government in the West Bank: Area A, Area B and Area C.  C is the largest and includes virtually all Jewish settlements, is managed by Israel and policed by the IDF.  B is managed by the Palestinian Authority and policed by the IDF.  A is managed and policed by Palestine, the eight major cities of the West Bank.

Area A is claimed and completely controlled by the Palestinian Authority

Palestine is in full control of Bethlehem and considers the city its own.  The claim isn’t any different than Israel’s claim to West Jerusalem, yet no resolutions have demanded (even symbolically) that Palestine relinquish its claims to the city.  Just as the nations of the world de facto recognize Israel’s incontrovertible hold on West Jerusalem, so too do they recognize Palestine’s control of the Christian city.

International bodies have put the onus on Israel as the occupier of the city, but the IDF and the government in Jerusalem have taken a hands-off approach to the city aside from erecting a barrier between it and Jerusalem to protect against suicide bombers during the Second Intifada.  The pressure the Christian citizens of the city have endured has been under the power of the Palestinian Authority, either by a direct result of its policies or its complete lack of regard for the well-being of the city’s inhabitants.

Muslim gangs demand protection money from shopkeepers and Christians have lost property to Bethlehem Muslims in unlawful seizures.  Christians have left the city in droves, reducing the population from 70% Christian when Resolution 181 was passed down to 15 today.  In the opinion of Khaled Abu Toameh, correspondent on Arab affairs for the Jerusalem Post, the city’s dwindling Christian leaders are reluctant to blame local causes for their plight.

Where are the condemnations against the Palestinian Authority’s allowance of ethnic cleansing in the city, if international organizations choose to accuse Israel of doing such things in Jerusalem?

Why doesn’t the UN stake its claim and oppose Palestinian rule of the city, especially as that rule is changing the city’s ethnic composition?

Maybe I shouldn’t advocate the UN start drawing up similar claims to the city in its resolutions about disputed territory; on the contrary, perhaps they should officially recognize this territorial dispute over what was intended to be the Corpus Separatum is only between Israel and Palestine, not the UN.  Just as Bethlehem is essentially a Palestinian city, so too West Jerusalem is an Israeli city.  Let them pass their resolutions calling for the city of Jerusalem to be a shared or divided capital – let them.  At least it’s a more honest approach.

About the Author
Gedalyah Reback is an experienced writer on technology, startups, the Middle East and Islam. He also focuses on issues of personal status in Judaism, namely conversion.