A Window Into Bethlehem

By Tim Stoner, EGM Contributor, with Bill Oechsler, EGM president

This is the third installment of a multi-part series on film screenings in Israel and Palestine. Additional posts will appear shortly. If you missed our other posts, click here.

A large portable movie screen has been erected on a concrete stage in Aida Camp, one mile north of Bethlehem. It was less than a year ago that construction of this 500-seat amphitheater was completed in preparation for Pope Benedict XVI’s visit to the Palestinian Territories. Olive trees, dormant in winter, stood adjacent to the outdoor venue, where local Palestinians once harvested their bounty, splitting its yield with the Armenian Church that owned the land.

Now the olive grove has been cut off by a barrier that runs the length of the refugee camp and which eventually will extend more than 400 miles. Depending on which side of the wall you live, it is referred to as either separation fence or apartheid wall. In either case, it is an imposing reminder of the hostility, tragedy and grief that has gripped this land. In his first-ever visit to the birthplace of Jesus, the Pope described the wall as “a stark reminder of the stalemate that relations between Israelis and Palestinians seem to have reached.”

On this December night, in the town where Jesus was born, the 30-foot-high wall provides a dramatic backdrop for a public screening of Little Town of Bethlehem. This documentary sheds light on a movement seeking to resolve this bitter impasse. Brave men, women, and children from both sides of the wall have chosen to challenge the hatred and fear that has divided them – not with fists raised, but with hands extended.

Many in the audience were children and young people drawn by the rarity of an outdoor movie in the middle of winter. They responded enthusiastically when a familiar face or location was recognized onscreen. In contrast, scenes of fighting, weapons, and uniformed soldiers elicited more sober reactions. After the film ended, the older members of the audience, as well as some visiting students from Europe and Australia, gathered around the stage to ask questions, make comments, and share opinions. A few expressed appreciation for the film’s objective point of view and for the filmmakers’ decision to share it with them that night.

Once the audience had thinned out and the equipment was packed away, the EGM team started walking the dark, narrow streets of Aida Camp toward their hotel. Only their muted conversations penetrated the night’s stillness. Passing under a large iron key that rests on top of the gate into the camp, several noticed its inscription in Arabic and asked for a translation. “Not For Sale,” explained their guide. For her and other Palestinian refugees, the key symbolizes the hope and expectation of returning to the homes their parents fled in 1948.

Hours later, Bill Oechsler and Sami Awad sat inside a small restaurant, its air sweetened with the fruit-flavored tobacco smoke flowing from coal-stoked narghiles. Bill listened as Sami translated for the patrons, most of whom had attended the screening. Most seemed grateful, or perhaps relieved, that the documentary offered a broader look at the Israeli/Palestinian story. Yet each one had their own stories they wanted to share. And so we simply listened.

Still more to come…

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