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Last Updated: Saturday, 17 September 2005, 23:13 GMT 00:13 UK
Born in Bethlehem
By Tim Butcher

Tim Butcher, currently based in the Middle East, has just become a father for the first time, but he is not sure how grateful his son will be when he realises the significance of his birthplace.

The happy parents with two of the hospital staff
We wanted to find the hospital that would make Jane feel most comfortable

A baby has just been born in Bethlehem and, while the birth might not quite have the same global impact of its illustrious predecessor, for Jane and me it was our own modest miracle.

Based as journalists in the disputed city of Jerusalem, the arrival of our first child posed a dilemma, as where the baby would be born had implications.

Some ex-pat friends of ours, about to have a child, chose to fly all the way home to the United States rather than risk problems downstream.

They were fearful that, without a tectonic shift in Middle East politics, their child would find travel in the Arab world problematic with a passport giving Israel as place of birth.

As we approached parenthood for the first time, our concerns were more basic.

We simply wanted to find the hospital with the best facilities, that would make Jane feel the most comfortable.

Rather unexpectedly, the one that won us over was in Bethlehem.

Super-friendly midwives

It is hard to put our finger on exactly why we fell for the Hospital of the Holy Family.

It might have been its calming, cloistered quad built around a chapel erected back in the 19th Century for an order of Catholic nuns, who wore ferociously starched wimples that looked like stealth bombers.

Map of Israel and the West Bank

Or maybe it was the gaggle of super-friendly, grinning midwives, who showed us around the delivery room for the first time and all seemed to be called Fatima.

Or maybe it was the immense weight of history associated with a hospital now run by the Knights Hospitaller of Malta, a chivalrous order which has been dispensing charity - and much more besides - in the Holy Land since 1050.

Whatever it was, we signed up, Jane went for a series of mid-term scans and I packed, repacked and repacked again my overnight bag.

Our Israeli - that is to say Jewish - friends thought us quite mad for opting to have the baby in Bethlehem.

One Jerusalemite I spoke to became quite indignant.

"Jewish health care is among the best in the world," she said. Why would you want to go to an Arab hospital? Do they even have the right equipment?''

Her words spoke volumes about the mistrust between the Holy Land's oldest and yet most divided peoples.

Checkpoint worries

As anyone who has read their Bible knows, Bethlehem is just a short donkey ride from Jerusalem, but the realpolitik of modern Israel makes that journey a lot more awkward.

Palestinian women and children pass through the separation barrier built by Israel in Bethlehem
An eight metre high concrete barrier dominates the boundary between Jerusalem and Bethlehem

Today, the city of Jerusalem is claimed by Israel but the border with occupied Palestinian land lies just beyond the city limits.

Bethlehem, home to thousands of Palestinians (both Muslim and, perhaps not surprisingly, Christian) is close enough to the city to be a suburb. But it lies on the other side of the Jerusalem Wall, the concrete curtain erected by Israel, it claims, to protect against suicide bombers.

All this meant that, when the moment came, Jane and I would have to cross an Israeli army checkpoint to reach the maternity hospital.

I cannot deny this caused me some worry.

Israel routinely locks down its checkpoints whenever there is a security scare and the Jewish state's withdrawal from Gaza - which coincided almost uncannily with the due date for our baby - made security scares a distinct possibility.

As it turned out, we got away with it.

Jane's labour began, conveniently enough, at lunchtime on a weekend and we were able to sail through the checkpoint past an obliging Israeli soldier, before reaching the tender embrace of the giggling Fatimas.

Bedlam in the street

During a lull in the proceedings, I ventured outside the Holy Family Hospital.

Jane Butcher with her new baby
Kit Patrick joined us after 22 hours of labour
The streets of Bethlehem were bedlam, crowded with honking yellow taxis ignoring the instructions of forlorn traffic cops, and water hawkers in full Ottoman costume tapping glasses in their hands to tempt customers to buy from a chilled reservoir strapped to their back.

Inside the delivery room all was calm.

At one point it got a bit crowded with a Palestinian Muslim gynaecologist, two Palestinian Christian midwives, a woman from Croatia who wore a nursing uniform but who - as far as I could tell - did not do much and an Italian nun who cruised the wards praying for newborns.

Jane gurned, I wept and Kit Patrick joined us after 22 hours of labour.

To me, peacock proud, Kit was perfect but, as he snuffled on his mother's chest and took his first bleary view of the world, could I detect a world-weary gleam of resignation in his blue eyes?

They seemed to be saying:

"Come on, Dad. You've given me a lifetime of mickey taking. No passport official in the world is going to pass up the chance to remark on my place of birth: Bethlehem."

From Our Own Correspondent was broadcast on Saturday, 17 September, 2005 at 1130 BST on BBC Radio 4. Please check the programme schedules for World Service transmission times.


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