If an “angel of the Lord” were to appear in the sky over Bethlehem today, there would be scarcely any shepherds keeping watch over their flocks to witness the scene.
Spending nights and days in the fields herding sheep has become an almost impossible task for the fast-diminishing community of shepherds in this biblical Palestinian town.
Jewish settlements, Israeli army checkpoints, closed military zones and the West Bank separation barrier have reduced the grazing area to such an extent that a growing number of Bethlehem shepherds have been forced to give up their traditional livelihoods.
“I miss the freedom of the wilderness. Everything is different now. We can barely move,” says Adel Alsir, a 35-year-old Palestinian who herds his flock less than 100m from a biblical site known as the shepherds’ fields.
While Alsir speaks, his 40 sheep scrutinize this small plot of land surrounded by houses in a desperate search for a blade of grass.
“The change has been huge,” he says. “Before the [Israeli separation] wall was built, I had 300 heads. I remember how we used to start our way down to the Dead Sea early in the morning. On that hill, we used to stop to take a nap under the trees when the sun got too hot.”
The hill he points to is Har Homa, a Jewish settlement built in the 1990s, where 20,000 people live.
Jawad Badr, the head of the veterinary department at the Palestinian Ministry of Agriculture in Bethlehem, explains that in five years the shepherds have lost one-third of their sheep.
“This business is not profitable anymore. Owing to the droughts and the lack of grazing areas, the shepherds are forced to buy fodder, but the prices are too high,” he says.
The Palestinian Authority cannot afford subsidies apart from a couple of free shots of vaccines a year, he adds.
If shepherds have become a kind of endangered species in Bethlehem, 73-year-old Carlos Nicola Sarras is an even greater rarity. He is one of the few remaining Christian shepherds in the area. His house sits next to the barrier that cuts off Bethlehem and Beit Jala from the west. It is surrounded by half a hectare of land, where his sheep “go out to breathe some air.”
Sarras, who despite his situation wears a permanent smile on his face, says: “This cannot be called herding.”
This season, rain has been so scarce that he cannot even milk the sheep. Selling the rams and waiting for a better time is the only option. Today, Sarras is getting ready to slaughter one of his 30 sheep to celebrate Christmas with part of his family. The rest of his relatives, including five of his nine children, have emigrated.
“Here there is no work. My kids could not live off the sheep even if they wanted to,” he says.
Many of his fellow shepherds have given up. Some lay bricks in the nearby settlements. Others remain jobless in a region where the unemployment rate reaches as high as 23 percent.
However, Sarras is not so interested in talking about the misfortune of his peers. Instead, he wants to show off his wooden catapult which he used to use to hunt birds.
He says: “This one is very good. The only problem is that the birds seem to have disappeared. I think it’s all the weather’s fault.”