Overlooked by a military watchtower, in a region known most for conflict and a town known more for Christmas, a few hundred Barcelona and Real Madrid fans are packed into a make shift outside viewing arena.
This is El Clásico in Bethlehem, a city where you either support Barca or Real; to support another team is at best unheard of, at worse disgraceful.
In a region which is dominated by the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and has been for over 60 years, El Clásico provides a welcome break from life under occupation and a chance for Palestinian football fans to be like any other throughout the world: sing songs, curse the referee and yo-yo up and down off a seat for 90 minutes. And for the Christians in the crowd it’s a chance to drink the local Taybeh beer — brewed just a few kilometres away in Ramallah — and for the odd Muslim as well it seems…. as long as you’re elusive about it.
As one Palestinian Barcelona fan once told me “Our days and our conversations always revolve around the conflict, but when Madrid and Barca play, that is the only thing on our minds.”
Bethlehem famed as the birthplace of Jesus and immortalised in dozens of Christmas songs about little donkeys, shepherds and of course its famous son, is very different from the idyllic Christmas card image we see perched on our mantelpiece every December.
Today’s Bethlehem is surrounded by a concrete wall which at its highest point is over 8 metres tall — twice the size of the Berlin Wall — and has two crowded refugee camps on either side of it, each pocket marked with bullet holes. The residents of Bethlehem even need permission from the Israeli military if they want to travel the 7km to visit friends or family in Jerusalem. And permission is hard to come by. Life here is not one full of optimism.
But at the start of any El Clásico in Bethlehem, optimism is in abundance. Hundreds always gather to watch; their plastic seats sprawled across the ground in front of a giant screen, a looming military watchtower nearby, but ignored. The need for seats is minimal however. Men, women, children and families spend their time up on their feet shouting support in Arabic, English and Spanish: almost as if there is an unwritten code where the more languages you use, the better the fan you are.
The make-up of fans in Bethlehem is around 50:50; the almost identical numbers of Barca and Real fans make the atmosphere of the place electric. As with every encounter between the two teams, the tension is evident; it is fair to say that this game is more than just a game in the little town of Bethlehem.
Barcelona were the victors last night (18/01/2012), and for half of Bethlehem that means a night of celebrations which inevitably spill out onto the streets in the early hours of the morning. For the other half, it’s a night of what could have been. However the result in the wider context has very little relevance, the game on the other hand does. What happens in Bethlehem on the evening of an El Clásico: the excitement, the passion, the joy of winning, the sadness of defeat — allows thousands of people who have been imprisoned simply due to being Palestinian, have a sense of freedom like any other avid football fans throughout the world.
The occupied Palestinian territories are choc-a-bloc with Barcelona and Real Madrid fans; it almost makes the West Bank and Gaza, the place to be for such a night. This is despite a military occupation, where water, trade, vehicles and an impoverished people are managed by a militaristic nuclear power. Hats off to the Palestinians, because for an apparently ‘imagined’ people they sure do create an atmosphere rivalled nowhere bar the cities of Barcelona and Madrid themselves.
Today, however goes back to the daily grind: Applying for permits to farm your land and visit relatives, though you probably won’t receive them; making it to work without being fired because you were held up for hours at a checkpoint for no reason bar your age; hoping no-one you know falls ill, hospital treatment is never guaranteed. Never mind the daily humiliation of having your day-to-day life controlled, the threat of being attacked by militant settlers, or being gassed for non-violently protesting that giant wall that runs through your families centuries old land, rooting up your olive trees and livelihood.
There are slight sighs of boredom in other parts of the world, complaining that Barcelona and Real Madrid play each other too often in a year. In an area of the world where constant conflict grinds individuals down, that constant hope for victory in the next El Clásico is just what this place needs; and the more games, the better.