Christmas behind Israel's wall

Bethlehem residents say the wall and a new checkpoint may harm tourism and jobs.

The meticulously followed Christmas ritual dates back to Ottoman times.

Every year on the morning of Dec. 25, the Latin Patriarch and a host of Church dignitaries head southward from Jerusalem via an ancient road to Bethlehem. But this year, the procession will pass through a metal gate topped with rolls of barbed wire, normally closed but opened briefly so as not to impede the tradition.

Flanking the gate are sections of 28-ft. high slabs of concrete that have made the northern approach of Bethlehem into a walled city. Half encircled by Israel's barrier, residents in the city where Jesus was born worry that the obstacle will slow a renewed stream of pilgrims as well as sever Bethlehem's historic link to Jerusalem.

"Going to Jerusalem is now like going to Jordan," complains Ali Jubran, a construction worker from Bethlehem, as he puts finishing touches on a new checkpoint terminal. "If you want to pray [at the mosque], you have to present a passport."

Creeping gradually southward through the West Bank, Israel has completed about half of the 411-mile matrix of concrete wall, electric fence, and patrol roads. Israel says it is necessary to keep suicide bombers from reaching its shopping malls and buses, but a United Nations court ruled in an advisory opinion last year that it violated international law.

On the outskirts of one of Christianity's holiest cities, the barrier snakes through the hills, almost entirely closing off nearby Jerusalem. Israeli security officials have charged that Palestinian-controlled Bethlehem has served as the base for militants who have carried out deadly attacks in Jerusalem.

The five-year Palestinian uprising has been especially painful for Bethlehem, where the tourism industry that fuels the holy city's economy all but collapsed. Visitors started returning here over the past year because of the calm in fighting, but city officials worry that the barrier and new checkpoint terminal at the entrance is liable to scare off pilgrims.

Crossing "was never easy, and now it's going to be more difficult," says Bethlehem Mayor Victor Batarseh. "This is an economic war against the city."

Traffic has been diverted from the old two-lane road to Jerusalem into a crossing complex with a parking lot, pedestrian terminal, and a massive sliding gate at another opening in the wall. Jerusalem-bound pedestrians pass through metal turnstiles and are inspected using surveillance cameras. The wall next to the exit is decorated with tourism posters, one of which says, "Have faith in Israel."

Israeli army officials say that foreign tourists during the Christmas holiday won't be subject to security checks. Palestinian residents, though, will still face the delays they have become accustomed to for the past five years.

"It's not easy passing through all those doors. You feel like a prisoner," says Kate Komseyeh, a resident of Bethlehem who commutes daily to Jerusalem where she works as a Greek-language teacher at St. Dimitri's School. "It's better without the wall. We can see Bethlehem from Jerusalem."

Residents of Bethlehem, a suburb of Jerusalem that attracts foreign diplomats and expatriates, drive 10 minutes up the road for hospitals, shopping, and schools. "Bethlehem and Jerusalem are twin cities. It's the first time in history that Bethlehem has been separated,'' says Jad Isaac, director general of the Applied Research Institute, a Jerusalem-based environmental group. "It will gradually cause Bethlehem to become ghettoized, a further deterioration of living conditions, and further immigration."

Municipal officials say that unemployment in Bethlehem is more than 50 percent due to the drop in tourism. On Tuesday, Palestinian gunmen briefly seized control of Bethlehem's city hall, demanding jobs in the Palestinian security services.

There are signs of life though. In an alleyway leading to Manger Square, a team of workers is laying cobblestones and cement after the municipality repaired sewer damage from Israeli tanks that roamed the Old City in 2002.

But estimates of the recovery differ. Mayor Batarseh says Bethlehem has experienced a 10 percent growth in tourism in recent months, while the Israeli Army said that the number of pilgrims in 2005 doubled to 200,000.

Just across from the Church of the Nativity, the Roman basilica built over the grotto that is the traditional spot of Jesus' birth, the signs over the storefronts of souvenir shops are shattered from gunfire. Gesturing to the empty stone plaza of Manger Square, Joseph Tabash complained that pilgrims go directly from the buses to the church and back. "Look outside. It's empty," says the gift-shop owner. "Go to any place in the world. Would you see a city center like this?"

Back near the entrance of Bethlehem, the neighborhood around Rachel's Tomb - the traditional burial spot of the Old Testament matriarch - has become a ghost town. Once bustling with markets and restaurants, Bethlehem's gateway district has been carved up by a cement wall corridor that allows Jewish worshippers to visit the holy site without being exposed to sniper fire.

In November, the construction of the wall nearly swallowed Johnny Anistas's villa, surrounding it on three sides. For five years, the family's gift shop and spare parts business on the first floor has been shuttered because of military blockades.

Now the isolation is physical. The wall's jagged crown is within spitting distance of the top floor window. "When we walk outside, we see the wall in our faces," he says.

"We can't live here anymore, but we don't want to leave our house. We're strong believers in God, but how much can God tolerate?"

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