Christmas Behind Israel's Wall ; Bethlehem Residents Say the Wall and a New Checkpoint May Harm Tourism and Jobs

By Joshua Mitnick Correspondent of The Christian Science Monitor | The Christian Science Monitor, December 22, 2005 | Go to article overview

Christmas Behind Israel's Wall ; Bethlehem Residents Say the Wall and a New Checkpoint May Harm Tourism and Jobs


Joshua Mitnick Correspondent of The Christian Science Monitor, The Christian Science Monitor


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. …

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