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Bethlehem Residents Gloomy About Israel's Security Wall  - 2004-09-29

The security wall Israel is building aims to protect its citizens from Palestinian suicide bombers and other terrorists coming from the West Bank and Gaza. The wall soon will restrict access to the town of Bethlehem, a popular tourist destination traditionally considered the birthplace of Jesus Christ.

Vendors in Bethlehem's central market call out to a few early morning customers wandering through the maze of vegetable and meat stalls.

The city's narrow stone-paved streets once bustling with tourists are populated these days by jobless young Palestinians who depended on a lively tourist trade for their income.

At the entrance to the city, taxi drivers wait for the elusive customer. They sit quietly in the shade of an Israeli security wall under construction there.

Abu Katona says he is lucky if he gets one customer a day.

"We come here in the morning," said Abu Katona. "We are out here 50 meters before the wall. And we try to make a living. I have family, I have children and no business. All my life I work with tourism. And you see they come one bus, two buses. They go to the church of the nativity for mass and they're here for one hour and back to Jerusalem. So we have no work."

Bethlehem's hotels are empty. So are the tourist shops.

Jewish tour buses visit a sacred tomb near the entrance to Bethlehem, but venture no farther. The few Christian tour buses that head toward Christian shrines in the city center do not linger.

Tourism has steadily dropped since the Palestinian uprising four years ago that enflamed the West Bank and since a month-long Israeli military siege of Bethlehem two years ago, when Palestinian fighters hid inside the Church of the Nativity.

Bethlehem's plight mirrors Palestinian cities across the West Bank and Gaza. A U.N. study says Palestinians have lost one fifth of their economic base over the past four years. Without international support, the report warns, the Palestinian economy will collapse.

Michel Nasser heads Bethlehem's Peace Center, which sits across Manger Square from the church where Christian teachings say Jesus was born. He remembers better days.

"If you wanted to get a ticket to get in to the church, it used to take two months in advance, minimum, to get tickets," said Michel Nasser. "Now you can literally in the last minute get a ticket and go inside the church. And this is a sad thing."

He says the security wall that will soon surround Bethlehem and the neighboring Christian villages of Beit Jala and Beit Sahour will only make things worse.

Mr. Nasser says the loss of revenue from the tourist trade has forced some residents to sell their property in order to survive.

Lutheran minister Mitri Raheb estimates nearly 3,000 Christians alone have left the area in the past four years.

Palestinians Christians, who once dominated the so-called Christian triangle of Bethlehem, Beit Jala and Beit Sahour, today account for less than one third of the inhabitants.

Mitri Raheb's recent book, called Bethlehem Besieged, Stories of Hope in Times of Trouble, chronicles the fears and frustrations of its residents through the uprising, military siege and construction of a security wall that will soon encircle the city.

"Bethlehem will be surrounded on three sides by the wall and on one side by a highway, built on Bethlehem land but not accessible to Bethlehemite's," said Mr. Raheb. "It's only for the settlers and this basically will close the ring around Bethlehem. And there will be just three gates leading in and out of Bethlehem."

While he speaks about the negative impact on the economy, the daily reminder of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict can be heard outside his window. A tear gas canister explodes in the street below as Israeli troops round up half a dozen young Palestinians.

"And, secondly it means an economic catastrophe because Bethlehem survives on tourism and were afraid that tourists would be prevented from coming," he said. "So economically, its a catastrophe."

Israeli citizens believe the wall has made the country safer from terrorists and Palestinian suicide bombers.

But community leaders like Mitri Raheb say the wall and other travel restrictions also make it harder for Bethlehem's jobless to find work in Jerusalem, just eight kilometers away.

"So you will have these gettos, overpopulated, large unemployment, and no future prospect," he said. "Our children will grow up surrounded by a wall and we're afraid this wall might affect their soul."

Mr. Raheb and other leaders like the Peace Center's Michel Nasser have started organizing concerts, youth dances, conferences and art exhibits to revive the city's cultural life and lift its spirits too.