- The Washington Times - Wednesday, December 24, 2003

BETHLEHEM, West Bank — As Bethlehem put on its traditional holiday parade with whining bagpipe bands and twirling batons, ghosts of a Christmas future hemmed in by Israel’s security barrier were haunting many of the Palestinians in this holy city.

Manger Square was decked with tinsel streamers against a backdrop of giant banners hanging from buildings that read “Stop the Wall” and “Don’t Convert Bethlehem into a Ghetto.” Several thousand people gathered outside of the church believed to be the birthplace of Jesus Christ to watch boy and girl scouts marching in step to the snapping snare drum corps.

“This year, we wanted to lift the spirits of the children, to get them out of this street,” said Mayor Hanna Nasser, looking up at the pine tree decorated with Christmas ornaments for the first time in two years. “Can the people feel joyful if their land is being grabbed by the Israeli government? This is terrible.”

If built according to current plans, Bethlehem will be surrounded on three sides by a network of fences, patrol roads and trenches. The government of Prime Minister Ariel Sharon has argued the barrier is needed because Palestinian authorities have been unable to restrain terrorist attacks on Israel.

While there have been no suicide bombings in the past 10 weeks, Israeli security officials said earlier this week that the peace is deceptive. At least a half-dozen bombings have been thwarted by the army and Israel’s domestic intelligence agency, Shin Bet, they said.

Much of the danger comes from Bethlehem, the officials said. Indeed, the army issued a briefing paper last month that described the town as a key terrorist sanctuary.

A completed portion of the barrier is already snaking through the hills to the north of Bethlehem, blocking all routes to Jerusalem.

Bethlehem residents fear they will share the fate of Palestinian cities and villages in the northern half of the West Bank that have already been encircled by the fence. The municipality estimates that almost 1,300 acres of property will be confiscated for the construction project, and farmers will be cut off from their fields.

Mr. Nasser drew a comparison with the West Bank city of Kalkilya, where residents can only leave the city through one gate in the fence.

“There are shivers all over town,” said Joseph Canavati, a hotel owner. “The psychological strain and uncertainty is killing us.”

Bethlehem has paid a heavy price during the years of the Palestinian uprising. With violence scaring away Christian pilgrims, the city’s tourism industry has suffered and unemployment has soared to 60 percent.

Only 1,500 worshippers were expected to be on hand for the Church of the Nativity’s Christmas Mass, compared with as much as 10,000 in other years.

Manger Street, the gateway road bringing visitors to the city center, used to bustle with shoppers. As the annual procession of Jerusalem’s Latin Patriarch paused on the street next to Rachel’s Tomb yesterday, a smattering of applause from beleaguered local residents greeted the dignitaries.

Israel’s stepped-up military presence around the site said to be the burial place of the biblical matriarch has turned the neighborhood into a virtual ghost town.

“Tomorrow, there will be nobody here,” said Jalal Rashmawl, a grocery store owner. “People used to come here when they had more money, and it was a real Christmas.”

Next year, the holiday procession might have to be diverted from Manger Street because the security fence is slated to block off the road so Israel can create a corridor connecting the tomb complex to Jerusalem. Palestinians fear the neighborhood around the tomb will become even more isolated from the rest of the city. Real estate prices have already plummeted.

Munther Bandak, owner of olive groves and a furniture factory near the tomb, said he planned to attend Christmas Mass with his family, but the holiday cheer will be dampened by the approaching fence. In the last year, he has received two military orders tracing different routes of the fence.

“One path leaves me in Bethlehem. One leaves me outside Bethlehem. Either way, it will cause a lot of damage to my family and my business,” he said.

“Implementation of this plan means putting me literally on the border. It means a very hard life.”

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