Israel divides Bethlehem with a wall of concrete, fear and suspicion
By Justin Huggler
22 February 2003
As you arrive from Jerusalem, the first street of Bethlehem,
lined with old, carved limestone houses, is deserted. Where the
tourists used to throng, the restaurants are boarded up. In a
few months, a high concrete wall will run down the middle of
this street, blocking a neighbourhood of Bethlehem from the rest
of the city.
The inhabitants here, predominantly from Bethlehem's
fast-dwindling Palestinian Christian community, will be cut off
from their city by a concrete wall guarded by Israeli army
patrols. They will be allowed to cross into Bethlehem only
through an Israeli army checkpoint, with permits the army can
issue or withhold as it sees fit. They will not be allowed into
Jerusalem, on the other side of the pocket of land they will be
walled off in.
Amjad Awwad will be cut off from the mini-market he runs. His
house is on one side of the street, the mini-market on the
other. After the wall is built he will need the Israeli army's
permission to go to work and to go home again. But that is not
his only worry.
"They told us if you want a doctor in the night the hospital
will have to phone the Israeli government and arrange permission
for him to be allowed in. If it's a heart attack, we'll die
before they allow the ambulance in."
After the wall is built, the Bethlehem municipality will even
need military permission to send trucks to collect the rubbish.
The wall is part of what has become known as Israel's "Berlin
Wall", electrified fences and concrete walls the Israeli
government is building around the West Bank to seal it off and
stop Palestinian militants crossing into Israel.
Here, as elsewhere, the wall is not following the 1967 border
but dipping deep into the West Bank. The reason it is slicing
into Bethlehem, say Israeli authorities, is so Rachel's Tomb, a
Jewish pilgrimage site inside the city, will be on the Israeli
side of the wall, guaranteeing easy access for pilgrims.
For the 500 or so people who will be cut off from the rest of
Bethlehem, the wall is a disaster. The order to build it was
announced this week, while the world's attention was on Iraq.
The Israeli cabinet decision to include Rachel's Tomb was made
public on 11 September, the anniversary terrorist attacks on
No coincidence, says the Mayor of Bethlehem, Hanna Nasser, who
will be cut off from his relatives by the wall. His son-in-law
lives in the area that will be walled off.
"Why do they need the wall?" he asks. "That whole area around
Rachel's Tomb is already under full Israeli control under the
The tomb is already surrounded by a concrete wall, and there are
Israeli army guard-posts on top of the buildings around it.
"Why do they need it unless they have hidden intentions?" says
Mr Nasser, suggesting the real reason for walling off the area
is to force the people to leave, so the land can be annexed to
That sentiment is echoed by Dr Jad Issac, of the Applied
Research Institute, Jerusalem, a Palestinian organisation that
makes maps of Israeli settlement-building in the occupied
territories using satellite images it buys commercially. They
show Bethlehem being surrounded by fences to protect new
settlement suburbs of Jerusalem built in the occupied West Bank.
"There will be no room for Bethlehem to expand naturally," Dr
Issac says. "The population density will become so high people
will start leaving freely. We will be forced to migrate."