Israel’s concrete plan to choke Bethlehem

January 1, 2000
Richard Kuper

Israel’s concrete plan to choke Bethlehem
Gerald Kaufman MP, The Times, 14 Oct  2003

In a couple of months, British churches will be resounding with: Adeste, fideles, laeti triumphantes; venite, venite in Bethlehem. As a Christmas carol it is inspiring. As a fact — forget it. If the Israeli Government has its way, all ye faithful, far from being joyful and triumphant, will have a heck of a job getting into Bethlehem.

The Israelis have decided to build a concrete wall that will split the holy city in two, obstructing access to the Church of the Nativity, and making access to Rachel’s tomb, sacred to Jews and Muslims alike, together with the adjoining Bilal bin Rabah mosque and Islamic cemetery, almost impossible. The only entrance to Bethlehem from Jerusalem will be through a bottleneck that will choke the city. Even though Manger Square was almost deserted when I went there last week, religious pilgrimage and tourism are Bethlehem’s bread and butter.

It will take more than a miracle of loaves and fishes to make up the massive deficit that the wall will inflict. This impact is additional to the rupturing of the resident community. Properties have already been confiscated in the Rachel’s tomb area: 44 parcels of land are earmarked for seizure. More land will be encircled, its inhabitants penned into a corral. Walls and barbed wire will imprison 4,000 residents of Bethlehem in a ghetto. Thousands of acres of agricultural land will be inaccessible to owners. About 500 citizens will need permission to enter or leave their own houses and lands. No visitors will be allowed.

To do this, the Israeli Government is flouting the 1995 Oslo agreement. As for the “road map”, to which Ariel Sharon, the Prime Minister, has signed up, don’t even ask. When the Israelis talk about the wall, much of which they have already erected, they pretend that it is being built along the internationally accepted pre-1967 demarcation line and describe it as a fence. For some of its length it is indeed a high electrically protected fence. Much of it, however, is an ugly wall of concrete panels many yards high, punctuated by watchtowers that look like fortresses. The wall snakes in, out and around, often penetrating far beyond the 1948 ceasefire line.

Much of its purpose is not to protect Israelis in their own land, but Jewish settlements, often obtruding far into Palestinian land. Since I was last in the Palestinian territories, these illegal townships, disfiguring hilltops, have proliferated almost exponentially, often like jerry-built garbage. The wall protecting them, as I saw when I went there with United Nations representatives, is already strangling the town of Qalqilya in a noose. When it is completed, residents will be able to get out only when Israeli soldiers let them. Even Palestinians not yet enclosed by the wall are in effect imprisoned, because the Israelis have ploughed up access roads to their villages and filled the consequential trenches with sewage.

In Hebron, where there is as yet no wall, Israeli restrictions have led to the death of the souk in the Old City, largely abandoned by traders who cannot sell their goods. In Jericho, where again there is no wall and no trouble, local farmers and horticulturists face ruin because they cannot sell their produce to West Bank towns to which access is restricted.

I find it impossible to understand how Jews, who have been persecuted for millennia, can oppress another people in this way. Israeli anger is absolutely justified at the carnage wrought by the relentless suicide bombers. If the measures they are taking, severe as they are, brought a stop to these atrocities, there would in logic be a justification for them. But they do not. Only progress on the road map has any chance of first containing and then stopping the atrocities against Israeli civilians. What I fear is that the Palestinian lands that the Israelis are enclosing are the breeding grounds for the suicide bombers of the future.

The author is Labour MP for Manchester Gorton

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