The separation fence is seriously damaging the `Christian Triangle’ in the Bethlehem area. Meanwhile, pro-Palestinian Christians in America are trying to breach the wall of evangelical support for Israeli policies.

At the end of March, a number of priests and pastors in Bethlehem made an effort to get documents permitting travel from Bethlehem to Jerusalem for members of their congregations, in time for the Easter holiday. It’s a distance of about five kilometers. Pastor Nihad Salman of the Immanuel Church was one of them. He submitted a list of names of about 200 of his congregants to the Civil Administration. The permits arrived two weeks later. He ordered buses from Jerusalem, which would wait at the checkpoint for his flock, since Palestinian vehicles are not permitted to leave the city. On Shabbat before Easter Sunday, on April 10, they all waited festively at the checkpoint. But there they were told that the permits weren’t valid. That was after the assassination of Hamas leader Sheikh Ahmed Yassin, during the Pesach holiday.

One of the women, who is 73 years old, wept at the checkpoint. “They toyed with us,” she said. “This isn’t my country any longer, if I can’t get to the Church of the Holy Sepulchre.”

Salman has tried several times to get permits for his congregants to immerse themselves in the Jordan River, at the point where it flows out of Lake Kinneret. In vain, he says: “People from Indonesia and Korea come and immerse themselves in the Jordan, whereas to us, from Bethlehem, who were born here, whose land this is, it is forbidden.”

It hurts him, he adds, that “in Bethlehem, 18-year-olds don’t know the location of the Mount of Olives, from which Jesus marched to Jerusalem.”

A few months ago, he requested permission, but didn’t receive it from the Israeli authorities, to visit one of his female congregants who was dying in a hospital, and whose son asked him to pray with her. Another of his congregants, who is about 60 years old, underwent bypass surgery in Ramallah. Even her husband wasn’t allowed to travel with her in the ambulance from Bethlehem, to be with her during the operation and the hospitalization. And Salman couldn’t visit her either. In addition, Salman has been invited to several conferences in Nazareth in which he couldn’t participate; other clergymen have similar stories.

Now he has an exit permit, valid until 7 P.M. – and only to Jerusalem.

S., 55, takes a risk and enters East Jerusalem even without a permit. She tries to participate in Sunday services every week with the members of her Methodist congregation in Jerusalem, in their church, and to hear the pastor’s sermon. The religious community is like family, she says. There she finds comfort and spirituality in time of crisis. Until a few years ago, believers from Ramallah and Bethlehem attended the simple church, in a typical East Jerusalem house, in addition to Jerusalemites. The rest were people of various nationalities who work in the country. Nowadays most are foreigners. A wall, barbed-wire fences and the law that prohibits Palestinians from moving freely without special permits from the Israeli authorities, prevent people from places such as Ramallah and Bethlehem from reaching the Holy City, Jerusalem.

S. is welcomed in the church with special blessings, which herald separation and finality. Soon, in a few more weeks or months at most, she will no longer be able to sneak in, and will stop participating in the Sunday service together with her fellow congregants. In the very near future, according to the “seizure of land” orders that were distributed in March, there will be progress in the construction of the separation fence or the wall in Beit Jala, in an area from which one can still sneak in somehow, especially if one is an older woman with fair skin and hair.

Three enclaves

In the “Christian Triangle” – Bethlehem, Beit Sahour and Beit Jala – it is emphasized that the barrier under construction only consolidates the separation between the West Bank and Jerusalem that has taken place over the past decade, and has worsened during the past four years. This is the Israeli closure policy, which since 1991 has prevented all Palestinians from entering Israel (including East Jerusalem and the Old City) without permits. Over the years the prohibition wasn’t strictly enforced, especially in this area. Now the fence and wall block the former breaches, and therefore the separation has become more tangible.

“All the Palestinians suffer, not only the Christians,” say many Christians from Bethlehem, including Mayor Hanna Nasser. But he agrees that in the vicinity of the cities of Bethlehem, Beit Sahour and Beit Jala, the lands that the fence will take over or cut off from their owners are mainly Christian-owned. Until 1948, only 5 percent of the residents of these cities were Muslims. The landowners were Christians. Even when the ratio between Christians and Muslims changed (only 35 percent of the 28,000 residents of Bethlehem today are Christians), most of the landowners were still Christians.

Even though the route of the separation fence in the Bethlehem area has already been approved in principle by the government, say security sources, the precise details haven’t been formalized. According to these sources, the length of the fence will be about 90 kilometers. At the Applied Research Institute – Jerusalem (ARIJ), whose researchers rely on publications of the Defense Ministry, they estimate that the length of the fence, with all its twists and turns in the Bethlehem area, will be about 50 kilometers. Based on these calculations, they estimate that about 5,000 dunams [1,250 acres] will be expropriated directly for the route.

The route of the fence in the Bethlehem area stretches far to the east of the Green Line. It surrounds the built-up area of the Christian Triangle, the refugee camps and the nearby villages, and leaves a substantial part of the agricultural lands and the open spaces on the other side of the fence. The barrier will create three Palestinian enclaves: the Walaja enclave, the enclave of the villages of Batir and Hussan, and the Nahalin enclave. This is in addition to the larger enclave of Bethlehem and its environs. In all, according to ARIJ estimates, at least 70,000 dunams [17,500 acres] of agricultural lands will for the most part remain “outside the walls” in the entire region – in other words, they will be inaccessible to the private owners and to the public. Of them, about 20,000 dunams [5,000 acres] are part of the Christian Triangle. About 80 percent of these lands are owned by Christians who have already lost a substantial percentage of their property in the past to the Jewish neighborhoods of Gilo and Har Homa in Jerusalem.

Hanna Nasser and Jad Isaac, the director of ARIJ, are convinced that the same thing will happen in Bethlehem as occurred in the northern West Bank, where the fence divorces villages and cities from their lands: Gradually, the lands are lost, turning into an unapproachable district. In effect, the fence will lead to the annexation of a substantial portion of the area outside the fence to Israel. “The damage is general: to the Palestinian people, to its land and to the territorial contiguity of what is supposed to be its state,” says Isaac.

The route of the separation fence in the Bethlehem district almost perpetuates the division that was set out in the Oslo 2 Accord, into Areas A, B and C. In other words, the fence surrounds Areas A and B, where the Palestinian Authority was allowed to be in charge of lands and their allocation. Area C, in which Israel maintains complete control over administration and use of the lands, remains outside the fence. In Areas A and B, says Isaac, the residential density is already 1,980 people per square kilometer. The loss of the unused areas will aggravate the housing problems and the crowding in the cities, and will frustrate expansion and housing plans. Also, the quality of the environment will suffer, because access to waste disposal sites will be cut off, and because the residents of the cities will be severed from the only green areas where they can still hike and relax.

Call to the Vatican

On the night of December 6, Father Claudio, from the Monastery of the Passionists on the Mount of Olives, heard the sound of the bulldozer eating away at the fence that surrounds the monastery. The monastery, which is about 100 years old, lies on the seam line between Azzariyeh and Abu Dis, two adjacent neighborhoods, one in the West Bank and the other in the municipal area of Jerusalem. He called the Vatican representative, who knew whom to ;call in the Israeli authorities, and the bulldozer was stopped, but not before it managed to destroy part of the fence and to dig inside the olive grove. The digging exposed four ancient graves and a Roman cistern. Father Claudio has long known that under the sparse olive grove that surrounds the monastery, remains of an ancient settlement are buried. Today the theory is that this is ancient Azzariyeh, says Father Claudio. The building of the wall – eight meters high – has stopped on the threshold of the monastery for the time being.

The large churches have constructed housing projects on their land in recent years, for Christian families in Jerusalem and Bethlehem who cannot afford to buy a house. Twenty Catholic families – all of them with Jerusalem identity cards – live in projects belonging to the Franciscan order in Azzariyeh. At first they were led to understand that the wall would pass above their houses, separating them from the monastery – in other words, would include them in the area of Azzariyeh, in the West Bank. For that reason, half the families in the neighborhood have already left Jerusalem. But these are Catholic families, whose religious needs are supplied by Father Claudio, from the monastery on the slopes of the mountain.

The intervention of holy authorities apparently helped in more than the problem of the monastery fence. A few weeks ago, representatives of the Civil Administration showed up in the residents homes, they say. The officials went onto the roofs, examined the area, and in the end told residents that the separation fence would pass along the eastern street adjacent to their homes. In other words, they would be included within Jerusalem proper. It’s hard for them to imagine exactly how the wall will twist and turn between the crowded houses.

But the construction of the barrier has already interfered with the routine work of three Catholic welfare institutions that operate nearby, on the seam line: a kindergarten with 32 children, a senior citizens’ home for 60 residents, and an orphanage with 65 children. The children and seniors all have family members on the other side of the fence, who are having difficulty meeting with them. The employees in the three institutions who live on the West Bank only occasionally manage to get to work, via some breach in the wall, and when the Border Police aren’t on patrol. The same situation is true for thousands of others, for whom Jerusalem has always been the center of their lives. When construction is completed, even this makeshift opening in the wall will be closed, and since the area in question isn’t Vatican property, it can be assumed that no intervention will succeed here.

Tourism plummets

The separation fence also breaks up the traditional route for pilgrims on the Mount of Olives: from Azzariyeh, the place of residence of Jesus’ beloved friend Elazar, Lazarus (who is buried there), via Bethpage – where Jesus relaxed with his disciples before he planned to reveal himself as the Messiah, according to Christian belief – and up to Jerusalem. Now the pilgrims who want to reconstruct Jesus’ journey have to make a detour and travel about 20 km. (plus waiting time at the checkpoints), in order to cross the 300 meters separating the two holy stations.

From 100,000 tourists a month four years ago, the number has plummeted to an average of about 5,000 who visit Bethlehem. That explains the facade of the city’s businesses, which always made about 70 percent of their income from tourism: Most of the shops are closed. In those that are open, owners and employees sit together, bored for lack of customers, or play cards. The 12 hotels, all of them owned by Christians, are empty. Fifty-nine Israeli military checkpoints and roadblocks in the Bethlehem area make their own contribution to the small number of people in the district center.

“A dead city,” is the definition of Dr. Bernard Sabella, a Jerusalemite and a Catholic, who teaches sociology at Bethlehem University. Every time he walks through the compound of the Church of the Nativity, he says his heart aches. The emptiness, he says, is in complete contradiction to the concepts behind the Nativity – its international character, its universality, its openness.

Sabella estimates that about 2,700 Palestinian Christians have emigrated from the West Bank in the past four years, most from the Bethlehem area. In the 1997 census, there were 51,000 Christians in the Palestinian territories (including East Jerusalem). Their number today is about 45,000-46,000: about 22,000 in the Bethlehem Triangle, 10,000 in Jerusalem, about 10,000 in Ramallah, and the rest in the Gaza Strip and in several Christian villages. (The total number of Palestinian Christians in the country and in the diaspora is 400,000. Of them, 160,000 live in the country, on both sides of the Green Line.) Some estimate that the number of Christians who have emigrated is even higher. Whatever the case, says Sabella, there’s no question that this is a dying community.

In surveys he has conducted among Christians, he notes, the main reasons for emigration cited are economic considerations and the fear of unemployment (about 40 percent). About 10 percent mentioned that life in an Islamic environment is problematic. A similar percentage of Christians from both sides of the Green Line, in the territories and in Israel, about 26 percent each, say in the survey that they want to emigrate. Sabella explains that the percentage of emigrants among the Christians – most of whom belong to the middle class – has always been higher than among the Muslims. Middle-class Christians and Muslims are more interested in personal advancement in their professions. They are particularly worried about the damage to their children’s education caused by the political and security uncertainty. Some 98 percent of the Palestinian Christians in the territories have relatives abroad, as compared to 75 percent of all Palestinians. In other words, emigration is a less difficult option.

The collapse of tourism in Bethlehem – which provided a livelihood mainly for Christians – has impoverished many members of this middle class. Now, the confiscation of their lands – whether direct or gradual – will steal most of their property from them, and with it their chance of acquiring an education. In Bethlehem they are convinced that this will situation only encourage more emigration. Now people are bitterly prophesying: “Soon the only Christians in Israel will be the guards at the holy sites.”

The Awads of Beit Jala don’t have much land: only about three dunams, and that inside the town. But they had the bad luck to discover in the early 1990s, when the Tunnel Road connecting Jerusalem and Gush Etzion was paved, that their land, including the family home, was located above the northern entrance to the long tunnel. The army confiscated one and a half dunams of their land, right above the opening to the tunnel. Bulldozers uprooted all the trees planted by the father of the family. Leila and Matri Awad, now about 60 years old, were forced to console themselves with the remaining area and the beautiful garden they have nurtured around their house.

At the end of May, Leila Awad doesn’t remember exactly when, a few soldiers showed up in their backyard at noon. Her husband, a whitewasher and painter who worked in Israel for years, until there were no more permits, went out to see what they wanted. One of the soldiers handed him a military order in Hebrew and Arabic, and another soldier photographed him receiving the order. The order informs of the seizure of land on an area of 12 dunams inside Beit Jala. A strip about 250 meters in length, whose width varies from 22 to 74 meters. From the drawing and the photograph one can conclude that this is for the purpose of allocating an area for a military guard post, as part of the overall separation barrier.

The Awad home will find itself outside of the expropriated area, but the garden and most of its trees and flowers and vines will be confiscated and destroyed. The only access road to their house will be blocked. “Will we be surrounded by a wall or a fence?” the family members asked the soldiers. The soldiers said that they didn’t know. Since that day, the family is having a hard time sleeping. “If the bulldozers come, I’ll take my husband away from here quickly, so he doesn’t have a stroke,” promises Leila Awad. But she is also on the verge of a breakdown. The uncertainty is killing her.

“If it’s an eight-meter wall, a meter away from the house, we won’t have any sun, we won’t have any light, the air will be blocked. And where will the children be when the construction and demolition begin, half a meter away from us? The dust, the noise, where will they play, how will they study, where will I get money for a lawyer?”

Her daughter-in-law, Souhir Ghneim, said: “It’s as though they want us to leave. To get us out of here. But we want to stay. There’s a remedy for physical pain, but there’s no remedy for our emotional pain. Where will we go? Who can we turn to? Where can we complain?”