In January 2020, there was a big bruhaha when a Jeopardy contestant said on the gameshow that the Church of the Nativity was located in Israel. What’s wrong with that? The Church of the Nativity is in Bethlehem, a town that came under Israeli rule in 1967 and is closely intertwined with Jewish history since biblical times.
Bethlehem is not in Israel. Rather, it is in the West Bank, which is a territory occupied by Israel but has never been annexed to Israel. Bethlehem, like the other Palestinian towns of the West Bank, it is ruled by the Palestinian Authority, an interim self-government body established in 1994 as a part of an agreement signed by the government of Israel and the PLO as the representative of the Palestinian people.The government of Israel never applied its sovereignty to any of the Occupied Territories, with the exception of the areas that now make up East Jerusalem. Therefore obviously, the Church of the Nativity is not a part of the State of Israel. Nobody in Israel or anywhere else in the world contests this fact.
So, if it’s not in Israel, where is the Church of the Nativity? Is it in Palestine, as another Jeopardy contestant stated? There is no state of Palestine.
Well, it depends on what you mean by “Palestine.” There is such a historic entity: the territory that lies between the Jordan River and the Mediterranean, which was historically referred to as “Palestine.”
There is also a modern political entity, a state-in-the-making, that many around the world refer to as “Palestine.” In fact, 138 of the 193 member states of the United Nations recognize the State of Palestine. While that state does not exist in practice, and its borders are yet to be determined in negotiations between Israel and the Palestinians, negotiators and leaders discussing two-state proposals have always agreed that Bethlehem will be a part of the future state of Palestine.
Does it really matter whether Israel is the sovereign in Bethlehem or if it just rules Bethlehem after having captured it in 1967? Don’t you agree that if you say Bethlehem is under Israeli control, for all practical purposes, it’s just like saying that Bethlehem is in Israel?
No. We strongly disagree. There is a huge difference between control of an occupied territory – which both Israeli and Palestinian leaders, and, indeed, the entire world, have in the past agreed will become a part of the future Palestinian state – and a territory that has been annexed to Israel. By extending its sovereignty to occupied territories, the government of Israel states its intention to hold on to them in perpetuity. Once it does so, and particularly if it annexes West Bank towns like Bethlehem, Israel would nullify the possibility of a two-state peace settlement with the Palestinians, which is the only viable way for Israel to settle its conflict with its neighbors. A protracted conflict, an endless occupation, is double jeopardy. It jeopardizes Israel’s security and wellbeing and it jeopardizes its future as a state that is both Jewish and a democracy. Bringing the Church of the Nativity and the town of Bethlehem under Israeli sovereignty, therefore, means existential jeopardy.