New wall sharpens Arab-Israel divisions
James Bennet/NYT The New York Times
Tuesday, February 18, 2003
Some Palestinians are left cut off by Bethlehem barrier
BETHLEHEM Claire Anastas, 34, spent most of the last week trying to keep her four children playing or studying while they were cooped up in their home here, under Israeli curfew.
Then, on Sunday, the army informed her that it would soon build a new wall, at least 7.5 meters (25 feet) high, outside her house. The wall will separate her neighborhood from the rest of Bethlehem, and her children from their schools.
"This is a nightmare for us," Anastas said. "We're trapped."
Under the plan, Palestinians like Anastas will be left on the Israeli side, and they will have to pass through an army checkpoint in the wall to reach the rest of Palestinian Bethlehem.
The family's predicament underscores the difficulty Israel is having untangling the knotted populations, and their intertwined political and religious traditions, as it builds a new barrier fence in the West Bank.
According to the government of Prime Minister Ariel Sharon, Israel must build the wall through the northern outskirts of Bethlehem to protect Jewish worshipers at the shrine they revere as the Tomb of Rachel, wife of the Biblical Patriarch Jacob.
The tomb, hidden by 4.5-meter concrete barriers and guarded by soldiers in battle gear, is just across Yasser Arafat Street from Anastas's house. Less than 500 meters inside Bethlehem, it has been a flashpoint for years. Worshipers arrived there Monday in an armored bus.
"There's a very important historical and religious site which has been the target of repeated attacks," said Raanan Gissin, Sharon's spokesman. "The main purpose here is not to annex that land, but to provide security."
The new wall is a segment of the barrier fence that Israel is building in what it calls an effort to separate Israelis from Palestinians. The government says that the snaking path of the fence is being guided not by politics or religion but by security needs.
But the blurriness of those categories is at the very root of this conflict. Rightist Israelis have been pushing to incorporate Jewish settlements and holy sites in the West Bank into the Israeli side of the fence. The proposed path of the fence already means it will include thousands of Palestinians on the Israeli side, undermining the fence's stated purpose of separation.
Gissin said that, in Bethlehem, the government "decided to change the route of the fence" to ensure "freedom of access and freedom of religion."
Bethlehem residents say it is they who are in danger, from Israeli fire. Having watched the army beef up its presence around the tomb and repeatedly seize control of Bethlehem over the last year, they accuse Israel of now grabbing the last relatively open spaces for Bethlehem to expand.
"Bethlehem is the Bethlehem ghetto now," said Jad Issac, director-general of the Applied Research Institute here, as he examined a satellite photograph of the area Monday. He said that, rather than seeking to ensure freedom of religion, Israel was pushing Bethlehem's Christian Palestinians to voluntarily pack up and leave. "Once they get rid of the Christians, then they will label the rest as terrorists," he said.
About 360 Palestinians would be trapped on the Israeli side of the wall, he said. Palestinians here said that the army told them they would not be granted status as Jerusalem residents, meaning they could not freely travel into Jerusalem from their neighborhood, either. But Gissin said it was possible that affected residents would receive some sort of enhanced status.
Under the Oslo agreement in the mid-1990s, Israel retained security control of the tomb, with a guarantee it would maintain the "present situation" there.
Shmuel Berkovitz, a lawyer and expert on Jerusalem's holy places, said that the effect of the new wall would be to annex Rachel's Tomb to Jerusalem "as a matter of technical separation, without an official declaration." He said that Israel's military leaders balked at taking that step after the Six Day War, for fear of provoking the Palestinian Arabs.
He noted that both the Ottoman and British rulers of this territory had recognized Rachel's Tomb as a site holy to Jews. The structure, a small stone building with a dome, was built in Ottoman times. It is now completely enclosed by the concrete fortifications the Israelis built in 1996 and 1997.
"Right now, you can't see any romantic place there," said Berkovitz. "You can see it only as a military position." Muslims say that the tomb contains a mosque, from which Israel now excludes them.
Bethlehem, which abuts the southern boundaries of Jerusalem, has been the source of many suicide bombings and shooting attacks during the conflict with Israel. The army has enclosed it with checkpoints, and along stretches of its boundaries soldiers have already dug a 1.5-meter-deep trench and piled coils of barbed wire head-high.
The Israelis also routinely raid Bethlehem and arrest suspected militants. The army renewed its curfew here last week after an Israeli officer was shot to death Tuesday night as he patrolled near Manger Square.
Rachel's Tomb has been relatively quiet in recent months, but this remains a tense, anxious part of the city. The olive-wood gift shops, falafel lunch spots and jewelry stores along Yasser Arafat Street were once the most bustling in Bethlehem, but now almost all of them are closed. Many residents have also left.
Inside one of the few stores still open, El Quds Auto Parts, the owner, Yusef Nemah, leafed through a receipt book to determine when he last made a sale: Sept. 25, 2002, for about $80 worth of parts.
Nemah, who specialized in Fords, said he could not blame his former customers.
"If this wasn't my store, I would never think of coming here," he said. He said that he would like to move his store, but cannot afford to.
The elegant family home of the mayor of Bethlehem, Hanna Nasser, is on Yasser Arafat Street. He said that the city would sue the Israeli government to stop the wall, but most residents here seemed already resigned to it.
"It's a military order," said Amjad Awwad, 37, a grocer, with a derisive chuckle. "There is no law." Awwad said that he lives a two-minute walk from the store but on the other side of the wall's path.
Inside the building housing the tomb, the windows are shuttered for safety, and the air is stale, stinking of sewage. The lights are fluorescent. But the devout still come to the tomb. One older man, who asked not to be identified, came from Jerusalem on Monday to pray for a granddaughter undergoing medical treatment.
He said he doubted that the fence would end the conflict.
"I think it's going to take the coming of the Messiah, or the eviction of the Arabs," he said.