A rise in house demolitions, the exile of militants and their families and the wall have heightened Palestinian worries of an escalation in Israeli operations while world attention is focused on a war against Iraq...Opinion polls show the wall receives broad support from Israelis. Both leftwing and rightwing parties have urged Ariel Sharon, prime minister, to speed construction
February 22/23, 2003
Israeli wall drives Palestinians to despair
By Sharmila Devi in Bethlehem
Jamil Hosh arrived at his olive-wood factory and souvenir shop in Bethlehem this week to discover that Israel planned to seize a large chunk of land in his neighbourhood - leaving his business stranded in a military ghetto.
Mr Hosh is one of about 700 mostly Christian Palestinians affected by Israeli plans to build a wall that will loop around the Rachel's Tomb Jewish shrine in Bethlehem.
Israel says the 360km fortified wall that will encircle the West Bank is vital to prevent terrorism. The route of the wall is still being decided but settlers are pushing for it to include them and holy sites on the Israeli side, taking land from Palestinians in the West Bank. Thousands of Palestinians will also be fenced in on the Israeli side, cutting them off from their farms, water wells and public services.
The wall has rekindled Palestinian fears of "transfer". Rightwing Israeli politicians use the word to promote the dispersal of Palestinians, not necessarily in a forced manner but through creating such difficult conditions that people flee to find better lives.
A rise in house demolitions, the exile of militants and their families and the wall have heightened Palestinian worries of an escalation in Israeli operations while world attention is focused on a war against Iraq.
Yasser Abed Rabbo, Palestinian information minister, said Israel would be watching for a muted reaction from the international community before stepping up its actions. Mr Abed Rabbo urged US officials during meetings on the stalled peace process in London this week to act against the "war crime" being committed in Bethlehem: "They must do something to stop this ethnic cleansing."
Mr Hosh and his neighbours have been told they will need special permits to get through an army checkpoint to visit the rest of Bethlehem. Many believe ultimately they will be forced to abandon their homes and businesses. "Nobody knows exactly what will happen, maybe we will have to move. This area will be a disaster," said Mr Hosh.
Palestinians say they will lose 750 acres to the Israeli side of the fence around Rachel's Tomb, a flashpoint guarded by Israeli soldiers and visited by Jewish worshippers in armoured buses. Palestinians have vowed to fight a legal battle against the military order seizing the land but are unlikely to win.
"The Israeli plan is to force people out of the Bethlehem area. Tourism is very important for future development but they don't want to absorb the 85,000 people here," said Jad Isaac, director of the Applied Research Institute of Jerusalem. "Already, 2,000 people have left during the past two years, young educated professionals, and once they are settled abroad they will send for their dependants, increasing the rate of migration."
The first section of the wall is being built in the northern West Bank.
Opinion polls show the wall receives broad support from Israelis. Both leftwing and rightwing parties have urged Ariel Sharon, prime minister, to speed construction to prevent suicide bombings.