The final section of Israel’s wall separating Bethlehem from Jerusalem will be completed in a matter of days.The wall around Rachel’s Tomb in Bethlehem will not only sever the connection between the region’s most holy Christian sites, but will also herald the creation of a new ‘fact on the ground’ – an illegal Jewish settlement which will be home to some of Israel’s most extremist religious groups.
The ultra-orthodox Kever Rahel Fund announced last year that it intended to build about 400 apartments at the site, this week their work has begun. Settlers are planning to move into houses around the tomb as soon as the wall is completed.
Bethlehem’s population fears that town will become another Hebron– where Jewish extremists have expelled Palestinians from their homes and with the support of the Israeli army, intimidate and harass the local population. Hebron was once the busiest shopping town in the region, but is now a ghost town. Christian Peacemaker Teams have a permanent presence there to monitor and report abuses by the army and settlers on local people.
A former member of the Israeli parliament, Hanan Porat, was quoted on Tuesday in the Israeli newspaper Haaretz saying that "With the help of God we are progressing toward maintaining a permanent Jewish presence and a fixed yeshiva in Rachel’s Tomb, as Rabbi Kook [religious Zionist fundamentalist] urged, and bringing Israelis back to where they belong."
Mayor of Bethlehem, Dr Victor Batarseh, a Palestinian Christian, said: “The recent land confiscation and works around Rachel’s Tomb are illegal and have no security basis. This is an act of land expropriation. It is a serious threat to the economic and social life of the town. As the Mayor of Bethlehem, I share the concern of all Bethlehemites, Christians and Muslims alike, that this could be the first step towards building a new illegal Israeli settlement right in the heart of Bethlehem. That is how it all started in Hebron a few years ago.”
In a statement to the international community, he said: “We call on all religious and political leaders, to intervene and protect the lawful rights of the town of the Nativity. The ghettoization of Bethlehem is not only destroying ancient communities, but is destroying the prospects of peace in the Middle East and the whole concept of international law”.
Rapid construction of the final section of the wall separating Bethlehem and Jerusalem is proceeding following the rejection by the Israeli Supreme Court of the appeal of 18 Palestinian families and the Bethlehem and Beit Jala municipalities to re-route the wall at Rachel’s Tomb. As a result, the area will now be included within the borders of Jerusalem municipality, in direct violation of the Oslo agreements. The wall was declared illegal by the International Court of Justice in The Hague (9 July 2004).
The Rachel’s Tomb area, once a vibrant neighborhood and a central artery between Bethlehem and Jerusalem, has seen 72 out of 80 businesses close in the last four years. The tomb itself, a major Bethlehem landmark and a shrine holy to three religions, is now barred to the city’s inhabitants. The neighborhood has been devastated to accommodate the expanding military base around the tomb, confiscating family homes and businesses and carving out a major landmark from the heart of Bethlehem. The wall pushes one and a half kilometers inside the city’s boundaries and confiscates 3km2 of its land.
“We are now racing against time. Israel has stolen our land to build a settlement. It is a disaster for us. A city of international importance may soon become history, Leila Sansour, Chief Executive of Open Bethlehem project, “We are calling for divestment from any international company that gives support to, or is engaged in, this illegal project. Divestment is one of the few non-violent options open to us”.