The Press

It’s a natural thing to want to expand

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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.’’

He is one of seven brothers, but only three remain in Bethlehem. The other four have gone abroad, part of a migration that has seen Bethlehem’s Christian population fall from about 50 per cent to under a third.

In this year’s Christmas message, 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.

Last week, Beit Jala’s parish priest, Father Ibrahim Shomali, led pre-Christmas prayers in a snowy olive grove to pray for a miracle to reroute 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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