- The Washington Times - Wednesday, February 19, 2003

From combined dispatches
BETHLEHEM, West Bank A senior Israeli army officer told Palestinians yesterday that their neighborhood in the town where Christ was born would be divided by a wall to safeguard Jews coming to pray at Rachel's Tomb.
A 25-foot-high barrier will scoop part of the West Bank town revered by Christians as the birthplace of Jesus into an expanded security zone being built around nearby Jerusalem to seal it off from Palestinian suicide bombers and gunmen.
Almost half of Bethlehem municipality's 140,000 population is Christian. The area around the tomb itself is mainly Christian.
The Israeli army sent notices on Sunday to Palestinians living in the vicinity of Rachel's Tomb, informing them that large chunks of their properties would be requisitioned for the wall.
A colonel in the army's Civil Administration for Israeli-occupied areas of the West Bank arrived two days later to explain a plan that local residents said would turn their once prosperous district into a ghetto.
"You will be able to come and go from your neighborhood with permits through checkpoints in a perfectly respectable manner," Col. Jamal Salman, an Israeli Druze speaking Arabic, told dozens of anxious residents crowding around him.
"There will be no evacuation of residents. There will be no changes in your lives initially. I cannot tell you when the work will begin but when it does a wall will be built," he said.
Guarded by troops in flak jackets, Col. Salman walked from the fortified entrance of Rachel's Tomb up Yasser Arafat Road so named after Palestinian militants began their uprising for statehood in September 2000 to brief everyone within earshot.
But it was largely a dialogue of the deaf between the Israeli army and local Palestinians who blame it for the demise of their livelihoods, saying the security measures are stifling and disproportionate to any threat to Rachel's Tomb.
"We did not meet you to discuss this [security wall] but to say we oppose them in principle," Bethlehem Mayor Hanna Nasser told Col. Salman amid protests by merchants who fear the wall will hurt their businesses.
Mr. Nasser said lawyers for the municipality would seek a temporary injunction in Israeli court against the wall.
About 500 residents living on the northern edge of Bethlehem are expected to find themselves on the wrong side of the Israeli barrier when it goes up.
"You are using the pretext of instability to expand the boundaries of Jerusalem at the expense of Palestinian territory, and hundreds of people will be in danger of falling into a ghetto behind concrete and barbed wire," Mr. Nasser said.
The Israeli order said 4.5 acres of property were "seized for military reasons" from eight residents, including the mayor, as well as the local Islamic religious trust opposite the tomb and an Armenian monastery.
In the Bible, Rachel, the wife of Jacob, is said to have had difficulty conceiving before finally giving birth to a son, Joseph. Some Jewish women seeking to become pregnant travel to the tomb to pray.
Israel captured Bethlehem from Jordan in the 1967 Mideast War. Israel handed over the town to Mr. Arafat's Palestinian Authority in 1995, but retained control of Rachel's Tomb. Before the start of the Palestinian uprising, the tomb was a popular tourist attraction.


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