Beit Jala, a small town two kilometers west of Bethlehem, is home to nearly 15,000 Palestinians, 80 per cent of which are estimated to be Christian.
Saint Nicholas Church, was built in 1925 by local stonemasons using a local stone – Beit Jala was famous for the many quarries. The church is situated on Saint Nicholas street right at the edge of the pedestrian area called the Kanees Quarter, so-called because of its proximity to the Church (kaneesa is the Arabic word for church). Every year on 19 December, the citizens of Beit Jala celebrate the festival of St Nicholas with great pomp. In addition to the religious celebrations, street parades, theatre plays, choirs, and a Christmas bazaar are organised to which visitors flock from all over the country.
Beit Jala also has a long history of resistance. In 1834, its inhabitants participated in the peasants’ revolt in Palestine against Ibrahim Pasha, the Egyptian governor of Syria. Egyptian troops assaulted the village until Ibrahim Pasha put a stop to the attack, but the village’s livestock was seized and dozens were killed. The attack on Beit Jala prompted rebels from the Muslim Palestinian Ta’amira tribe, a local Bedouin tribe, to enter into Bethlehem to help bolster its defence.
Since the 1948 war, residents in Beit Jala have have suffered from repeated incursions by settlers and the Israeli military. In 1952, an Israeli reprisal raid in Beit Jala killed seven civilians; one man, two women and three children.
Thousands of acres of land have been confiscated by Israeli forces for illegal settlements, including the settlements of Gilo and Har Gilo. During the second intifada, there were weeks of intense fighting between Palestinian fighters that set up base in Beit Jala, and Israeli soldiers in those two settlements.
Local church leaders in Beit Jala – Latin Catholic and Greek Orthodox – were also involved in the campaign to prevent the construction of the Israeli 708 km long ‘separation wall’, which was illegally built on Palestinian land inside the West Bank.
Beit Jala has several hotels and guesthouses where pilgrims and tourists can be sure of a warm welcome.