Ah, Christmas in Bethlehem. Manger Square is ablaze with colorful lights. The weather is usually a bit chilly. Aggressive merchants bombard passersby with “special sales” on all kinds of cedar wood statues and religious carvings.
And like clockwork, the mainstream media descend upon this city every year to ignore rampant Muslim intimidation of Christians and instead blast Israel - often with completely inaccurate information - for ruining Christmas and for the drastic decline of Christianity in one of the holiest cities for that religion.
Take a widely circulated piece by McClatchy Newspapers writers Dion Nissenbaum and Cliff Churgin.
The piece, published last week, cites Bethlehem's dwindling Christian population and paints a picture that squarely blames Israel.
"For generations, the Holy Land Arts Museum (in Bethlehem) has been selling olivewood manger scenes to thousands of pilgrims wanting souvenirs from the biblical birthplace of Jesus," starts the piece.
"Gone is the olivewood stable shielding the baby Jesus, Mary and Joseph. In its place, looming over the angelic family, are an Israeli watchtower and three towering sections of an adjoining wall."
Outright lying, the McClatchy Newspapers piece stated Bethlehem "remains largely isolated from the outside world by Israel’s 25-foot-tall concrete walls, part of Israel’s separation barrier."
The piece implied the wall caused the crash of Bethlehem's economy and prompted Christians to flee. Similar articles were churned out by Reuters, the BBC online and scores of local newspapers.
ABC News, for example, chimes in: "The (Israeli) wall has cast a shadow over this famous West Bank town."
Now let's get our facts straight. Bethlehem is not surrounded by any wall.
Israel in 2002 built a fence in the area where northern Bethlehem interfaces with Jerusalem. A tiny segment of that barrier, facing a major Israeli roadway, is a concrete wall, which Israel says is meant to prevent gunmen from shooting at Israeli motorists.
The fence was constructed after the outbreak of the Palestinian Intifada, or terror war, launched in 2000 after late PLO Leader Yasser Arafat turned down an Israeli offer of a Palestinian state, returning to the Middle East to liberate Palestine with violence.
Scores of deadly suicide bombings and shooting attacks against Israelis were planned in Bethlehem and carried out by Bethlehem-area terrorists.
At one point during the period of just 30 days in 2002, at least 14 shootings were perpetuated by Bethlehem cells of al-Aqsa Martyrs Brigades terrorists, killing two Israelis and wounding six.
Many times Muslim gunmen in the Bethlehem area reportedly took positions in civilian homes in the hilltops of Christian Beit Jala, which straddles Bethlehem. Beit Jala afforded the terrorists a clear firing line at southern sections of Jerusalem and at a major Israeli highway down below, drawing Israeli military raids and the eventual building of the security barrier there.
Is this barrier causing Bethlehem's Christians to flee, as the mainstream media claim?
Rampant land confiscation
Simple demographic facts will answer this question. Israel built the barrier five years ago. But Bethlehem's Christian population started to drastically decline in 1995, the very year Arafat's Palestinian Authority took over the holy Christian city in line with the US-backed Oslo Accords.
Bethlehem consisted of upwards of 80 percent Christians when Israel was founded in 1948, but since Arafat got his grimy hands on it, the city's Christian population dove to its current 23-percent. And that statistic is considered generous since it includes the satellite towns of Beit Sahour and Beit Jala. Some estimates place Bethlehem's actual Christian population at as low as 12 percent, with hundreds of Christians emigrating per year.
As soon as he took over Bethlehem, Arafat unilaterally fired the city’s Christian politicians and replaced them with Muslim cronies. He appointed a Muslim governor, Muhammed Rashad A-Jabar and deposed of Bethlehem’s city council, which had nine Christians and two Muslims, reducing the number of Christians councilors to a 50-50 split.
Arafat then converted a Greek Orthodox monastery next to the Church of Nativity, the believed birthplace of Jesus, into his official Bethlehem residence.
Suddenly after the Palestinians gained the territory, reports of Christian intimidation by Muslims began to surface.
Christian leaders and residents told me they face an atmosphere of regular hostility. They said Palestinian armed groups stir tension by holding militant demonstrations and marches in the streets. They spoke of instances in which Christian shopkeepers' stores were ransacked and Christian homes attacked.
They said in the past, Palestinian gunmen fired at Israelis from Christian hilltop communities, drawing Israeli anti-terror raids to their towns.
In 2002, dozens of terrorists holed up inside the Church of the Nativity for 39 days while fleeing a massive Israeli anti-terror operation. Israel surrounded the church area but refused to storm the structure. Gunmen inside included wanted senior Hamas, Tanzim and Brigades terrorists reportedly involved in suicide bombings and shooting attacks.
More than 200 nuns and priests were trapped in the church after Israeli hostage negotiators failed to secure their release.
Some Christian leaders said one of the most significant problems facing Christians in Bethlehem is the rampant confiscation of land by Muslim gangs.
"There are many cases where Christians have their land stolen by the (Muslim) mafia," said Samir Qumsiyeh, a Bethlehem Christian leader and owner of the Beit Sahour-based private al-Mahd (Nativity) TV station.
"It is a regular phenomenon in Bethlehem. They go to a poor Christian person with a forged power of attorney document, then they say we have papers proving you're living on our land. If you confront them, many times the Christian is beaten. You can't do anything about it. The Christian loses and he runs away," Qumsiyeh told WND, speaking from his hilltop television station during a recent interview.
Qumsiyeh himself said he was targeted by Islamic gangs. He said his home was firebombed after he returned from a trip abroad during which he gave public speeches outlining the plight of Bethlehem's Christian population.
One Christian Bethlehem resident told WND her friend recently fled Bethlehem after being accused by Muslims of selling property to Jews, a crime punishable by death in some Palestinian cities. The resident said a good deal of the intimidation comes from gunmen associated with PA President Mahmoud Abbas' Fatah organization.
A February Jerusalem Post article cited the case of Faud and Georgette Lama, Christian residents of Bethlehem who said their land was stolen by local Muslims and when they tried to do something about it, Faud was beaten by gunmen.
One religious novelty-store owner I met recently told me Muslim gangs regularly deface Christian property.
“We are harassed but you wouldn’t know the truth. No one says anything publicly about the Muslims. This is why Christians are running away.”
What? Muslim persecution is driving the Christians out of Bethlehem? One would never know that from the Christmas coverage/annual Israel bash-fest by my "colleagues" in the media.
Aaron Klein is Jerusalem bureau chief for WorldNetDaily.com and is author of the bestselling book, "Schmoozing with Terrorists"