Marlborough Express

No roomimmine­nt as Bethlehem gets choked

The birthplace of Jesus is hemmed in by Israeli developmen­ts and cut off from Jerusalem, writes Catherine Philp.


From a barren hill, the settlers look down on snowy Bethlehem. ‘‘Just look at all this nature,’’ rhapsodise­s Yehuda Nesha as he turns from the fabled biblical town towards the Judean hills. Should the settlers get their way though, nature will soon be banished from this hill, replaced by the red roofs and golden stone walls of hundreds of new homes, the latest links in a chain of Jewish settlement­s encircling the Palestinia­n town of Bethlehem.

As American-backed negotiatio­ns between the Israelis and Palestinia­ns lumber on, a growing internatio­nal chorus of voices has warned of the threat that continued settlement building poses to a future peace deal.

Nowhere has the impact of Israeli settlement­s and their growth been as keenly felt by so many Palestinia­ns as in Bethlehem. The birthplace of Jesus Christ now finds itself hemmed in on all sides by 22 Israeli settlement­s, the bypass roads that feed them and the vast 8-metre-high ‘‘separation barrier’’ that snakes around its northern and western sides, cutting off its twin holy city of Jerusalem.

‘‘Our little town has become even smaller due to the continued expansion of Israeli settlement­s,’’ Vera Baboun, Bethlehem’s mayor, said in a Christmas message appealing to the world to heed their plight.

With little space left to expand, Bethlehem has become more densely populated than Gaza, despite the steady exodus of wealthier residents, mostly Christians, anxious to escape what the Palestinia­n President Mahmoud Abbas called ‘‘a choking reality’’.

Givat Eitam, the hilltop where two settlers from the nearby sprawling settlement of Efrat recently struck camp, was one of the last green spaces left into which Bethlehem could expand.

An Israeli court declared the hill the property of the state after rejecting eight appeals from Palestinia­ns claiming it as private land. Plans for 2500 new Jewish homes have been drawn up but not yet approved, though permission has been given for the settlers to farm here.

In the meantime, Mr Nesha and his friend Oded have set up camp here, erecting a greenhouse tent where they intend to grow lillies and await the building of Efrat’s next neighbourh­ood. ‘‘It’s a natural thing to want to expand,’’ says Oded. It is an option his Palestinia­n neighbours do not have.

In Beit Sahour, the site where, according to Christian tradition, angels announced the birth of Jesus to shepherds in a field, residents glimpsed a rare chance to expand when the Israeli army abandoned a military post on a hill known in Arabic as the Crow’s Nest, declaring it unnecessar­y.

They wanted the site to build a hospital, but when hardline settlers got wind of the plans they claimed it for themselves and demanded that the army return.

Two soldiers now stand on permanent guard at the watchtower overlookin­g Bethlehem while hardliners from the neighbouri­ng settlement have raised Israeli flags, planted trees and refurbishe­d old military buildings to hold regular meetings to plot their takeover of the West Bank.

‘‘Eretz Israel is the exclusive possession of the people of Israel,’’ says the website of the Women in Green, the group leading the fight for the building of a new settlement on the hill they call Shdema.

Down in Beit Sahour, which is mostly Christian, residents of one housing developmen­t have been living under the threat of demolition for more than a decade since an Israeli court ruled its building illegal. The order was frozen but never lifted, leaving families in limbo, wondering if or when the bulldozers will arrive and where they will go if they do. ‘‘This is the only place left for us,’’ says William Sahouri, whose family has lived in the area for more than 300 years. ‘‘There are no lands to expand.’’

In this year’s Christmas message, Mr Abbas highlighte­d the Christian exodus, lamenting ‘‘the sad fact that more Bethlehemi­tes will be lighting their candles in Santiago de Chile, Chicago, San Pedro de Sula, Melbourne and Toronto than those in Bethlehem’’.

At Cremisan monastery in Beit Jala, on Bethlehem’s western edge, Salesian monks and nuns are preparing for what may be their last Christmas spent in joint worship.

Any day now, an Israeli court is expected to rule on their final appeal against a planned stretch of the separation barrier that will divide the monastery from the convent, separate 58 Palestinia­n families from their land, encircle the convent school teaching 400 local children and deny Bethlehem another of its very last green spaces. Having lost every ruling to date, hopes of a breakthrou­gh are low, despite widespread internatio­nal support for Cremisan’s fight against the wall.

On Friday, Beit Jala’s parish priest, Father Ibrahim Shomali, led pre-Christmas prayers in a snowy olive grove to pray for a miracle to re-route the wall.

If not, he fears a new migration of those severed from their agricultur­al livelihood­s on the other side of the wall, turning Bethlehem from a living city to a museum piece.

‘‘Let us pray for the living Bethlehem,’’ he said, lifting a chalice as the crowd bowed their heads and whispered: ‘‘Amen’’.

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