I am on my way to Bethlehem, which is where I come from and where I tend to spend Christmas. When I visit from London, I am given strict instructions to bring with me a generous amount of cheddar cheese, a good whisky and, as unlikely as it sounds, Yorkshire tea. I have made it into a local tradition and there is no one else but me to supply the tea in the quantities required. Normally, my biggest concern is trying to find enough space in my suitcase for all these supplies. I so wish this was my main concern this time round. Since the start of Israel’s bombing campaign of Gaza, life in Bethlehem has been turned upside down. The place has known sad Christmases but this one will be unlike any other.
My friends in Bethlehem tell me to get rid of any statements of solidarity with Gaza on social media if I want to avoid trouble. ‘Take it seriously,’ they say. The Israeli army is stopping people at checkpoints, examining their phones and making arrests. ‘It’s the Inquisition on steroids,’ says a friend. Four hundred and fifty people have already been arrested in Bethlehem since 7 October, the majority without charge. Fifty of them are minors. I’ve read enough about Israeli jails to know that I never want to end up in one, so I start to comb through my posts. The problem is that almost all of them are about Gaza. How could they not be? ‘More than 15,000 people slaughtered’; ‘More than 6,000 of those are kids’; ‘More than 6,500 remain under rubble’. What else is there to say, apart from to call for a ceasefire? I don’t think many of my posts are all that original. They echo what many human rights institutions, churches and even the Pope have said.
I call one of my best friends in Bethlehem, a university professor, who is midway through preparing a dish of burbara when we speak on the phone.