BETHELEM faces a SLOW DEATH
A 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
[Chicago Tribune - 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
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
But the rest of the time, Bethlehem--which for centuries has lived
off its status as the birthplace of Jesus--is dying a slow,
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
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
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
"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
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
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
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.