Legendary birthplace faces a slow death

30-foot-high concrete wall will destroy what is left of the little town of Bethlehem

By Alfredo Lanier.
Alfredo Lanier, a member of the Tribune's editorial board, recently visited Israel

April 8, 2003

While American and British forces invade Baghdad, a far quieter but no less effective campaign of military attrition and economic strangulation continues against Palestinians on the West Bank territories occupied by Israel since 1967. And the fabled little town of Bethlehem, with its population of 28,000, showcases the tragic effect Israeli policies are having on the Palestinian population.

Shooting occasionally breaks out in Bethlehem, south of Jerusalem, as it did last month, when Israeli soldiers shot three suspected Palestinian militants, along with a Palestinian family in a car, killing a 10-year-old girl and seriously wounding her father, mother and sister.

But the rest of the time, Bethlehem--which for centuries has lived off its status as the birthplace of Jesus--is dying a slow, asphyxiating death.

Where tour buses used to park bumper-to-bumper on Manger Square, gangs of grungy kids now roam like tumbleweed, hustling coins from anyone resembling a tourist. Veteran guide Nidal Al-Korna, pacing outside the Church of the Nativity, says up to 5,000 tourists a day used to crouch through its incongruous 4-foot-high entrance. Now he's lucky to see 40 or 50.

In his second-floor City Hall office, overlooking the empty square, Bethlehem Mayor Hanna Nasser can barely control his anger. In September, the Israeli government announced it will annex the site of Rachel's Tomb, a Jewish religious shrine on the northern edge of Bethlehem, along with a clutch of Palestinian homes. Worse still, the Israelis will seal off the entire area with a 30-foot-high concrete wall around the tomb--and down the middle of the two-lane access road into Bethlehem.

Israeli authorities blame the recent fortifications, and the crash of Bethlehem's tourist economy, on terrorism. An Israeli army spokesman said two soldiers have been killed in the vicinity of Rachel's Tomb since the latest Palestinian uprising exploded two years ago, and several Jewish worshippers also attacked, though no one in town recalls the latter. Most days only a couple of armored buses from Jerusalem bring worshippers to the impregnable tomb. A mile up the road, a military checkpoint also greets all visitors to Bethlehem.

The wall is but the latest yank on the noose the Israeli government has laid around the Palestinians in Bethlehem. Since 1967, the Israeli government has built the huge Har Homa and Gilo settlements on the east and west sides of town, along with connecting expressways--modestly called "settlers' roads"--bypassing Bethlehem. On the south lies a refugee camp, a no-man's town run by the United Nations and housing approximately 23,000 Palestinians.

And now a Berlin Wall-like structure, with watchtowers--and a military checkpoint that will creep closer toward the center--on the remaining northern access to Bethlehem.

When asked about it, Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon invokes a vision, ever more elusive, of a Palestinian state side-by-side with Israel.

But the all-important "facts on the ground"--the baseline for any negotiations--point to a policy of land annexation by Israel. What's left is not a Palestinian state but rather an archipelago of scattered Palestinian islets.

Menachem Klein, a political science professor at Bar-Ilan University near Tel Aviv, and author of an upcoming book about the status of Jerusalem, dismisses government claims that security concerns are behind construction of the wall around Rachel's Tomb. "This is just a cover, the idea is to make the wall into a permanent border," he says. "You begin negotiations from that point forward, because the wall becomes a `fact on the ground.' "

Nasser, 63, has been Bethlehem's mayor for seven years, vice mayor for 23, and says his family has lived in the city since 1609. He has Ottoman Empire and the British Mandate of Palestine land titles for anyone who doubts his claim.

"The Sharon government has decided to annex Rachel's Tomb, which is in the heart of Bethlehem," he says. "They will build a wall down the middle of the road leading to town, and around 42 Palestinian homes that will become a ghetto. I feel very sad when I use this word, it reminds me of the Jewish ghettos of Poland. But what is going to happen to these Palestinian families who are going to be completely isolated?

"They are trespassing on the land of Bethlehem. This is robbery. This is theft."

No one disputes that approximately 500 Palestinians will be trapped inside this ghetto--who will need permits to come and go--or that the wall down the two-lane access road to Bethlehem will choke the town.

According to Nasser, a dozen small hotels, and scores of trinket and souvenir shops have folded during the past two years. City government could not meet payroll in January because hardly anyone in town is paying taxes.

Construction of the security wall is farther along north of Jerusalem, where it very roughly follows the 1967 border. In many areas it cuts through square miles of valuable farmland, effectively annexing it--in Palestinian eyes--to Israel. More "facts on the ground."

The 41,000 residents of the Palestinian city of Qalqilya, northeast of Jerusalem, are by now almost entirely surrounded either by a concrete wall with watchtowers, or a series of fences, barbed wire and ditches. Part of the wall cut through Palestinian farms that were expropriated without compensation. The single bottleneck entrance to town is controlled by the Israeli army.

Qalqilya's economy, which depended on nearby farms and trade, is withering. About 4,000 residents have fled the city, some permanently, others to work outside and send money for their families left behind.

Mayor Nasser says he will file suit to stop construction of the wall. On Feb. 24 the presidents of the Bishop's Conference in Jerusalem issued a declaration, nothing if not melodramatic: "The inhabitants of Bethlehem, and particularly Christians, seeing themselves closed in, and threatened to the point where some of them may feel [forced] to leave the country, appeal to you! This is an S.O.S. cry!"

Qalqilya's Mayor Maarouf Zaharan also has hired lawyers and commissioned aerial pictures of the Israeli wall rapidly surrounding his town. But as Israeli bulldozers continue to rip through nearby farms and olive groves, you can tell he's losing hope.

Copyright © 2003, Chicago Tribune