BETHLEHEM, West Bank (Reuters) – A senior Israeli army officer told Palestinians on Tuesday their neighborhood in the town where Christ was born would be divided by a wall to safeguard Jews coming to pray at biblical Rachel’s Tomb. A 25-foot high barrier will scoop part of the West Bank town revered by Christians as Jesus’s birthplace into an expanded security zone being built around nearby Jerusalem to seal it off from Palestinian suicide bombers and gunmen.
BETHLEHEM, West Bank (Reuters) – A senior Israeli army officer told Palestinians on Tuesday their neighborhood in the town where Christ was born would be divided by a wall to safeguard Jews coming to pray at biblical Rachel’s Tomb.
A 25-foot high barrier will scoop part of the West Bank town revered by Christians as Jesus’s birthplace into an expanded security zone being built around nearby Jerusalem to seal it off from Palestinian suicide bombers and gunmen.
Almost half of Bethlehem municipality’s 140,000 people is Christian. The area around the tomb itself is mainly Christian.
On Sunday, the Israeli army sent notices to Palestinians living in the vicinity of Rachel’s Tomb telling them that large chunks of their property would be requisitioned for the wall.
A colonel in the army’s Civil Administration for Israeli-occupied areas of the West Bank arrived two days later to explain a plan which local residents said would turn their once prosperous district into a ghetto.
“You will be able to come and go from your neighborhood with permits through checkpoints in a perfectly respectable manner,” Colonel Jamal Salman, an Israeli Druze speaking Arabic, told dozens of anxious residents crowding around him.
“There will be no evacuation of residents. There will be no changes in your lives initially. I cannot tell you when the work will begin but when it does a wall will be built,” said Salman.
Guarded by flak-jacketed troops, Salman walked from the fortified entrance of Rachel’s Tomb up Yasser Arafat Road — so named after Palestinian militants began fighting for statehood in September 2000 — to brief everyone within earshot.
DIALOGUE OF THE DEAF
But it was largely a dialogue of the deaf between the Israeli army and local Palestinians who blame it for the demise of their livelihoods with stifling security measures they say are disproportionate to any threat to Rachel’s Tomb.
“We did not meet you to discuss this (security wall) but to say we oppose them in principle,” Bethlehem Mayor Hanna Nasser told Salman as merchants who fear the wall will kill their businesses shouted and gesticulated around them.
Violence during the Palestinian revolt has already turned Bethlehem, which came under self-rule under a 1995 interim peace deal, into a tourist ghost town. Bethlehem and other West Bank cities have since been reoccupied following suicide attacks.
Nasser said lawyers for the Bethlehem municipality would seek a temporary injunction in Israeli court against the wall.
About 500 residents living on the northern edge of Bethlehem are expected to find themselves on the wrong side of the Israeli barrier when it goes up.
“You are using the pretext of instability to expand the boundaries of Jerusalem at the expense of Palestinian territory and hundreds of people will be in danger of falling into a ghetto behind concrete and barbed wire,” the mayor said.
Israeli Defense Forces Order 03/14T said 4.5 acres of property were “seized for military reasons” from eight residents, including Nasser, as well as the local Islamic religious trust opposite the tomb as well as an Armenian monastery.
The notice said the land seizure was “part of steps to prevent terrorist attacks.”
Jad Issac, a Bethlehem research institute director, said: “Maybe no one will be evicted but they will all suffocate economically and socially. Bethlehem will be strangled, denied space for future development.”
He showed reporters satellite pictures attesting to proliferating Jewish settlements and bypass roads hemming in Bethlehem and adjacent Palestinian villages.
“Eighteen thousand dunams have been confiscated around Bethlehem since 1967. The wall is part of this (creeping) annexation,” he said.
Israel denies this, saying barriers being erected are for security only and will not prejudge final borders.
(c) 2003 Reuters