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Rebuilding Bethlehem

The commitment to deliver help and healing is a shining star of hope.

by Charles Miller, S.M.

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Seven children between the ages of 2 and 13 played hide-and-seek around and in their small, jerry-built home on the edge of Beit Jala, a largely Christian village near Bethlehem. Two of the nervously grinning boys offered a gift to the visitors – bullets of various sizes found around their home.

Father Guido Gockel, a Mill Hill Missionary who is CNEWA’s Regional Director for Palestine, Israel and Cyprus, inspected the house, its windows broken and interior walls darkened by soot and smoke from the fire of an Israeli tank shell. The shell had torn through one bedroom wall and destroyed much of the house.

The children’s mother turned to Diana Mubarak, Director of Social Services for the Palestinian Authority, who had accompanied Father Guido, and told her in Arabic: “You probably don’t remember me, but when you picked me up off the street when I was a teen-age runaway 15 years ago, you saved my life.”

“My husband and I don’t have much,” she said, “but we do have our children – alive – and our own little home that my husband has been working on…until the shooting started.”

Diana admitted she could not clearly place the woman she had saved; there were too many such cases over the 27 years of her career as a social worker.

Abused women and children, as well as persons with physical or mental disabilities, are the “invisible people” in Middle Eastern society, often deliberately kept out of sight by their families. One of the accomplishments in which Diana takes justifiable pride was gaining approval from the Palestinian Authority for the establishment of a center for unwed mothers and abused women and children. It is unique in Palestine.

“I will not always be here, so someone has to be able to help them in the future,” she said.

The stark reality of life in Bethlehem today is light years removed from the romanticism of Christmas cards and “Silent Night.” Fifteen months of shelling, sniper fire, road closures and blockades of villages during the Israeli-Palestinian violence have resulted in massive destruction of homes and businesses. With the almost total loss of tourism – Bethlehem’s primary industry – unemployment has soared to an all-time high of at least 80 percent.

Bethlehem and its surrounding villages were highly dependent on the tourist trade and were looking to a boom as the new millennium approached. New hotels, restaurants and souvenir shops were built in anticipation of the large influx of pilgrims expected during the Jubilee Year 2000, and thousands of Bethlehem residents worked not only in these but also in comparable positions in nearby Jerusalem. Construction jobs were abundant as foreign aid flowed in, donated to improve streets, renovate building facades and spruce up the city to a degree of beauty never before witnessed in its multi-millennial history. The traditional olive wood and mother-of-pearl carving trades employed many more.

But for more than a year now the hotels have stood empty and new construction is at a standstill. Pilgrims are few. Access to Jerusalem for Palestinians is sporadic at best.

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Tags: CNEWA War Bethlehem Funding Father Guido Gockel