An Australian in Bethlehem

As holders of foreign passports, two of my friends and I decide to take the intrepid step of crossing from Israeli Jerusalem into Palestinian-controlled Bethlehem on Christmas Eve. Discreet inquiries had revealed that things were pretty calm in the birthplace of Jesus, security would be tight and both sides were doing their best to welcome the anticipated influx of 18,000 pilgrims. The Israelis went as far as handing flowers and candy to pilgrims as they passed through the border-like checkpoint. Intending to make it for Midnight Mass, we (20-something women from Australia and the U.K.) whizz through the checkpoint without so much as flashing our passports. Nativity Square is crawling with people, heavily protected against the winter chill with coats, hats and gloves. We are also heavily protected by hordes of security men. It doesn't take us long to notice, however, that most of the celebrants appear to be Palestinians, rather than foreign pilgrims. We feel somewhat uneasy as non-Christians participating in a Christian festival. But we do our best to join in the Christmas spirit and even sing a round of "Silent Night." Vendors selling coffee and steaming corn on the cob tempt us with their warm wares. A middle-aged man selling red-and-black keffiyas approaches us. "You want, you want?" I contemplate purchasing a keffiya for a friend back home. My companions warn me of the political message behind it. I ignore them, and under a large banner with a smiling photo of Yasser Arafat, wearing a similar keffiya, wishing people a merry Xmas, I pay the peddler the 10 shekels ($2.5) for the scarf. The Church of the Nativity looks blocked from all sides, with a mass of people crowding around it. We are approached by a few young men around our age, wanting to wish us a Merry Christmas. My friend responds with toda - thanks, in Hebrew - which we have become so accustomed to using. I elbow her in the ribs, frightened that our Jewish, Zionist identity may be revealed. My friend looks at me questioningly. "You can't still be worried?" she says. "Look how nice everyone is being." I decide at this point to try and relax a little. We ask some of the bystanders why it's so congested and they explain it's because Mahmud Abbas, the President of the Palestinian Authority, is inside. A man at the front with a very large gun is ushering people in, a few at a time. I hear him ask, "Is anyone here from Russia? Florida? Australia?" My hand flies up. "I'm from Australia!" "Sydney?" he inquires. "Yes, yes Sydney." I push my two friends to the front of the line, passing the genuine pilgrims, who look on somewhat annoyed. The guard is smiling and we are laughing, feeling that we had just been granted passage into some exclusive club. The church is enormous, but rather bare. The only ornate embellishments are atop the altar. Gold and gilded frames surround pictures of Jesus and other saints. The hundreds of candles lit by believers endow the place with a spiritual feel - or would have if not for a brightly colored Pokemon (a character in a Japanese children's video game) balloon hovering behind the head of a very somber priest robed entirely in black. On leaving the church we bump into one of the guys we had been talking to previously. He informs us that he is also going back to Jerusalem and we agree to share a taxi. Getting in the car, my friends and I congratulate ourselves on finding a "native," who can negotiate a good price. Our self-satisfaction cooled when we realized how supremely ripped off we had been on our way in. Passing back through the checkpoint, all that is required was a flash of our passports. We didn't have to open them, even when we "beep" passing through the metal detectors. This was not the case for our new Palestinian friend. Every time he beeps he has to remove another item of clothing and walk back through the gate again and again. We look on, feeling uncomfortable, as disembodied voices from somewhere high above order him back through for the fifth time. Eventually he passes without beeping, and we all cheer, slapping him on the back.