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[casi] Bethlehem: encircled in steel

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> Bethlehem to be encircled in steel as 'security fence' snakes its way
> around holy city
> By Justin Huggler in Bethlehem
> 20 December 2003 - Independent
> "We're not celebrating Christmas this year," says Yaqub Kasis, a
> member of Bethlehem's dwindling community of Palestinian Christians.
> It should be a time of celebration for the city where Christ was born.
> Unlike last year, this Christmas there are no Israeli soldiers in
> Bethlehem's streets and the tanks have gone. "This Christmas is
> quieter than before," Mr Kasis says. "But it's worse. It's worse
> because of the wall."
> Israel's "security fence" has arrived in Bethlehem. It snakes through
> the suburbs, close to the old stone houses. But the term "fence" is
> misleading. The section built in Bethlehem is made up of a triple
> layer concrete wall and two metal fences, one equipped with electronic
> sensors. The space between the two fences is patrolled by Israeli army
> jeeps. Israel is building hundreds of miles of fence across the West
> Bank. The pilgrims who travelto Bethlehem for Christmas this year will
> find that the city of Christ's birth is being walled off. Fears are
> growing that the city may soon be surrounded. The Israeli army says
> that the wall will not encircle the city - one quarter will remain
> open to the West Bank, it says.
> But the Palestinian group Arij, which monitors Israeli construction in
> the West Bank, claims that the Israelis are planning to close the last
> quarter with two bypass roads. One road has already been completed
> near the north-eastern edge of the city and is cut off by its own
> protective fence. The Israelis say the new roads will be open to
> Palestinians, but Dr Jad Isaac, the head of Arij, says that even if
> they are, they will separate Bethlehem from its farmland and prevent
> expansion. "They are turning Bethlehem into a ghetto," he says.
> It is a fate which has already befallen the Palestinian cities of
> Qalqilya and Tulkarem further north in the West Bank. Qalqilya is
> surrounded by a concrete wall complete with pillboxes from which
> Israeli soldiers look down on the city. The only way in and out is
> through Israeli army checkpoints.
> Israel says the wall will stop suicide bombers crossing from the West
> Bank into Israel. "If that were true, why don't they build it on the
> Green Line?" says Dr Isaac. The Israeli government refuses to build
> the fence on the Green Line, the internationally recognised border
> between the West Bank and Israel. Instead, it cuts many miles into the
> West Bank, so that Jewish settlements can be included on the "Israeli"
> side.
> International observers, including President George Bush's National
> Security Adviser, Condoleezza Rice, claim that Israel is attempting to
> establish a new de facto border. Last week, the Israeli Deputy Prime
> Minister, Ehud Olmert, said he wanted Israel to withdraw unilaterally
> from part of the West Bank and set its own borders. In an ultimatum to
> the Palestinians on Thursday, Ariel Sharon, the Israeli Prime
> Minister, warned he would embark on a "unilateral separation" plan
> within months if the Palestinians failed to arrest the gunmen and the
> suicide bombers as part of a negotiated peace. "If you look at the map
> you can see what Olmert is saying," says Dr Isaac. "They are saying
> that a Palestinian state will be limited to 40 per cent of the West
> Bank and Gaza Strip, crammed into separate cantons."
> Palestinians who live outside the planned route of the fence face an
> uncertain future. Where the fence has been completed, the Israeli army
> has ordered that only Palestinians with permits can live between the
> fence and the Green Line. These permits will be issued at the
> discretion of the Israeli army. But the order exempts not only Israeli
> citizens but anyone of Jewish origin.
> The situation is just as bleak for those inside the fence. The Israeli
> army wants to demolish Mr Kasis's home in Beit Sahour, a suburb of
> Bethlehem with a large Christian population, to make way for the
> fence. "If they demolish it, I will live on the rubble," says Mr
> Kasis. "I have nowhere else to take my children." Mr Kasis used to
> work in Israel, but since the Israeli military closures that have been
> imposed during the intifada, he has been unemployed. Mr Kasis lives on
> land that was given free for new housing by the Greek Orthodox
> Patriarchate of Jerusalem. He invested his savings in the cooperative
> that built his home. The fence will increase Bethlehem's economic
> problems. Workers will no longer be able to cross illegally into
> Israel in search of jobs.
> Those living near the fence will not be the only ones to suffer, Dr
> Isaac said. The land either side of the proposed route was set aside
> for the city's future development. If Bethlehem is completely
> enclosed, he says, the population will become increasingly crammed in
> as it continues togrow. Bethlehem could come to resemble the already
> fenced Gaza Strip, where the cities cannot expand and the population
> density is 4,500 people per square kilometre - one of the world's most
> crowded places.
> The fence has accelerated another of Bethlehem's problems: the
> Palestinians are leaving. Many feel that their future in the city is
> stark and are applying for visas for America or Europe. Mr Kasis has
> two relatives who have already left. Several of his friends have left
> too. It seems everyone in Beit Sahour knows someone who has left. They
> say as many as 1,000 families have left Beit Sahour since the intifada
> began in September 2000.
> George Ibrahim, a Christian who is preparing to leave for Sweden,
> said: "I don't want to leave. I don't support leaving. I am doing it
> in spite of myself. When I look at my children, I think, 'I don't have
> the right to make them suffer this life'."
> It is easier for Palestinian Christians to get visas and work permits
> than Muslims. Many have relatives in Europe and the US, and tend to be
> more highly educated and better qualified than Muslims. Bethlehem's
> Christian population is, therefore, in danger of disappearing.
> Mr Kasis said: "Can you imagine Bethlehem without Christians? The
> Church of the Nativity without Christians?". He looks from his balcony
> to where the route of the fence is being prepared. "That's why they
> are doing this," he said. "To make us leave."

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