Bethlehem or Beit Lahem is a small conurbation of several old historic towns and villages which became joined up after a flood of refugees came to the area during the Nakba or Disaster of 1948 - mainly from the area of what's now Israel between Jerusalem and Tel Aviv. The main old towns are Bethlehem itself, Beit Sahour and Beit Jala, with villages such as Duha, Al Khader and Irtas, and refugee camps such as Deheisheh and Aida. Its population is around 100,000.
...and Palestinian Christians, many of whom
are descended from Greeks of 2,000 years ago
or Europeans who came in the times
of the Crusades...
...and refugees from what is now Israel,
especially from around Jaffa and Ramleh,
who came mainly in 1947-48 during the Nakba,
the Disaster, when the British Mandate ended
and the Israelis took what became Israel.
Bethlehem's fate has always been bound with that of Jerusalem, only 10km away, especially through Christian connections. But it is nowadays separated and sealed off by the separation wall and a phalanx of Israeli settlements built as part of the Greater Jerusalem project, pushing in on Bethlehem and making it crowded, unable to expand.
Nowadays it is very different from Jerusalem, which is a polarised, edgy and intense city. Bethlehem is homely, friendly and welcoming, a motherly kind of place. It's one of the more liberal and cosmopolitan of Palestine's towns. It goes back thousands of years. It is located high up, around 2,700ft (800m), on a plateau surrounded by impressive landscape.
Its most famous site is the Church of the Nativity, the traditional site of Jesus' birth, where there is a significant pilgrimage each Christmas. Western (Protestant and Catholic) Christians, Greek and Russian Orthodox and Armenian Christians have different dates for Christmas. Three Christmases!
Though traditionally Christian-majority, Bethlehem is now 90% Muslim, by dint of the enormous immigration of refugees around 1948 and the emigration of Palestinian Christians since then, mainly to the West. Christians and Muslims get on notably well, even though they are visibly different ethnic groups with different histories. Palestine and Bethlehem also have a considerable secular population who, in the religious fervour of recent decades, have tended to get upstaged and overlooked.
I love this town and, if I could, I would live here. But, until Palestine gains sovereignty over its own affairs, this is not possible.