by JAMES BENNET | New York Times | February 17, 2003
BETHLEHEM, West Bank, Feb. 17 — Claire Anastas spent most of last week trying to keep her four children playing or studying while they were cooped up in their home here under Israeli Army curfew.
Then, on Sunday, the army informed her that it would soon build a new wall, at least 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," said Mrs. Anastas, 34. "We're trapped."
Under the plan, Palestinians like Mrs. Anastas will be left on the Israeli side of the wall, and they will have to pass through an army checkpoint inside it 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, now hidden by 15-foot concrete barriers, topped by guard towers and patrolled by soldiers in battle gear, is just across Yasir Arafat Street from Mrs. Anastas's house. Less than 500 yards inside Bethlehem, it has been a flash point for years. Worshipers arrived there today in an armored bus.
"There's a very important historical and religious site which has been the target of repeated attacks," Raanan Gissin, Mr. Sharon's spokesman, said. "The main purpose here is not to annex that land, but to provide security."
The new wall is a segment of a barrier fence of concrete and wire that Israel is building in what it says is an effort to safeguard 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. Right- wing Israelis have been pushing to fence Jewish settlements and holy sites into the Israeli side. The proposed path of the fence already means it will include thousands of Palestinians on the Israeli side, to some extent undermining the fence's stated purpose — separation.
Mr. 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. 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 town's last relatively open space.
"Bethlehem is the Bethlehem ghetto now," said Dr. Jad Issac, the director general of the Applied Research Institute here, as he examined a satellite photograph of the area today.
He said that, rather than seeking to ensure freedom of religion, Israel was pushing Bethlehem's Christian Palestinians to pack up and leave. About 360 Palestinians would be left on the Israeli side, he said. "Once they get rid of the Christians, then they will label the rest as terrorists," he said.
Bethlehem, which abuts the southern boundaries of Jerusalem, has been the source of several suicide bombings against Israelis. Israel has blocked its exits with checkpoints, and along stretches of Bethlehem's boundaries it has already dug a trench five-feet deep and piled coils of barbed wire.
Israeli soldiers routinely raid Bethlehem and arrest suspected militants. The army renewed its curfew here last week after an Israeli officer was shot dead on 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 Yasir Arafat Street were once the most bustling in Bethlehem, but now almost all of them are closed. Many residents have also left.
Palestinians Fear Being Trapped by Israeli Wall
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Inside one of the few stores still open, El Quds Auto Parts, the owner, Yusef
Nemah, 50, leafed through a receipt book to determine when he last made a sale: Sept. 25, 2002, for about $80 worth of parts.
Mr. Nemah, who specializes 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 shop, but cannot afford to.
The elegant family home of the mayor of Bethlehem,
Hanna Nasser, is on Yasir Arafat Street. He said the city would sue the Israeli government to stop construction of the wall, but most residents here seemed resigned to it.
"It's a military order," said Amjad Awwad, 37, a grocer, with a derisive chuckle. "There is no law." Mr. Awwad said that he lived a two-minute walk from the store — but on the other side of the wall's path.
Palestinians here said they were told that the wall would be made entirely of concrete, to prevent shooting attacks. Israel is offering some compensation for the land it is confiscating in the wall's path, but not, Palestinians say, for some 750 acres on the Israeli side.
Palestinians said 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 Mr. Gissin said it was possible that affected residents would receive some sort of enhanced status.
Under the Oslo Accords, Israel retained security control of Rachel's Tomb, with a guarantee it would maintain the "present situation" there.
Dr. Shmuel Berkovitz, an expert on Jerusalem and Jewish holy places, said the new wall would effectively annex Rachel's Tomb to Jerusalem from Bethlehem "as a matter of technical separation, without an official declaration." He said Israel's military leaders balked at taking that step after the 1967 Middle East war out of fear of provoking the Arabs.
He noted that in centuries past Ottoman and British rulers of this territory 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 fortifications, built in 1996 and 1997.
"Right now, you can't see any romantic place there," said Dr. Berkovitz. "You can see it only as a military position."
Muslims say the tomb contains a mosque from which Israel excludes them.
Through a locked steel door, inside the building housing the tomb, the windows are shuttered for safety, and the air is stale — stinking, today, of sewage. The lights are fluorescent. But the worshipers still come. One older man, who asked not to be identified, said he came from Jerusalem today to pray for a granddaughter undergoing medical treatment.
He said he doubted that the proposed 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.