"For, behold, I bring you good tidings of great joy."

- Luke 2:10

TRADITION says the field where the angels appeared to shepherds "keeping watch over their flock by night" is now modern Beit Sahour, just south of Bethlehem.

This year, as the annual telling of the Christmas story came around again, I couldn't help but remember what I saw in Beit Sahour and Bethlehem a year ago, when I was one of 40 Americans on a trip to Israel and the occupied territories sponsored by Rabbis for Human Rights-North America.

Look up and see a mammoth Israeli Jewish settlement called Har Homa that dominates the countryside, built on the site of a forest that once had 60,000 pine trees. See the checkpoint, one of hundreds in the West Bank, that can take you a short time or a long time to get through, depending on the whim of the guards staffing it. Only a few checkpoints are on the border between Israel and the West Bank. Most of them are in Palestinian lands, undercutting the rationale that they are for security. Unpredictable delays can make it difficult to hold jobs, attend school, get medical care.

And then there is the Wall - in the Bethlehem district, it's a concrete barrier 30 feet high that snakes along the road and through the fields, often cutting off one part of Palestinian land from another.

As part of the trip, we each spent a night with families in that mostly Christian Palestinian city.

They shared stories of how their lives have been circumscribed by the occupation. A woman tells her guest that she has relatives in Jerusalem, only a short car ride away, but that she is not allowed to visit them. (As an American, her guest can go back and forth at will.)

OTHER HOSTS recount jobs that have been lost, families split up and children deprived of opportunities. One father spoke of a bullet from an illegal Jewish outpost on a hill overlooking his house that just missed his son. The boy was in the bathroom in front of the mirror and bent down just before the bullet arrived, shattering the mirror.

But the violence here need not be just bloody: It can mean humiliation, despair, resentment.

"Peace to men of good will," the angels sang. In Beit Sahour in that 41st year of the occupation, the prospect of a true peace, based on justice and equality, felt very far away.

Carol Towarnicky is a member of the Daily News editorial board. E-mail her at