- 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
- "Eighteen thousand dunams have been confiscated
around Bethlehem since 1967. The wall is part of this (creeping) annexation,"
- Israel denies this, saying barriers being erected are
for security only and will not prejudge final borders.
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