Living in the shadow of the Wall
Bethlehem residents can only watch as the Israeli Wall surrounds the town and slowly chokes the life out of it.
|The Israeli wall is winding its way in and out of Bethlehem, destroying the tourism industry [GALLO/GETTY]
Claire Anastas is standing outside her gift shop on Rachel’s Tomb Street in Bethlehem. A Christian, she has lived all her life in this city where she runs a gift shop selling hand-carved olive wood products to sell to the throngs of visitors from all over the world who come to see the birthplace of Jesus.
“This used to be one of Bethlehem’s liveliest streets, full of internationals and locals, even orthodox Jews, who came to visit the shrine of Rachel,” she tells me. Looking at the towering, concrete wall which now surrounds her house on three sides, just metres away and virtually hemming her in, this is hard to believe.
Since the Israelis started building the wall in 2002, Anastas’ street has become a literal and economic dead end. Religious tourism, the life-blood of this street, has dried up – and with it, her family’s income. Although tourist coaches can no longer pass near her street, Claire Anastas keeps her shop open. But it’s a constant struggle for survival.
Anastas and her family live under Israel curfew and have suffered physical and psychological problems because of the wall. The soldiers on the nearby watchtowers film right inside her house – even into her bathroom. She cannot afford curtains. “We live in a cage”, says her husband.
Crowds flock to Bethlehem for Christmas
Her children would like to leave and start a new life abroad, but Anastas refuses to be driven out, vowing to carry on with the family business and selling her products online. In fact, she hopes to open a cafe to help her community, employing local women.
“We want to make something unique here,” she says. “But no one helps us. All the aid money goes to the big projects.” She even wrote to Tony Blair, in his capacity as envoy of the Middle East Quartet, for financial help. But, she tells me, he never replied.
Anastas is just one of many Palestinians whose livelihood has been curtailed by the separation wall, as I discover from Mazin Qumsiyeh, a professor of biotechnology at Bethlehem University who researches the impact of the wall on the local population and environment.
Never-ending settlement expansion
Opened in 1973, Bethlehem was the first university in the West Bank, and traces its roots back to 1893 when the Christian Brothers opened a school here. From the rooftop, there’s a spectacular view of the surrounding hills and olive groves – and of the nearby settlements.
Professor Qumsiyeh sweeps his arm across the panorama before us. “Already, over 87 per cent of this land has been taken over by settlements,” he tells me, “and Bethlehem has been reduced as a district to this central area, which is about 13 per cent of its original size.”
Back in his office, he shows me the map of the villages affected by the wall. “Israel did a very interesting thing,” he says, pointing to one village, al Walija. “In 1967, they expanded the borders of East Jerusalem and annexed it to Israel. The line they drew on the map went through what remains of this village.”
“Tourism depends on the accessibility of a destination. People coming to Bethlehem have to pass through checkpoints and the separation wall.“
– Michel Awad, Bethlehem University
“They’ve already demolished 33 houses, and plan to demolish another seven”, he continues. “The problem is they annexed the houses, but not the people that come with the houses.” (The day after we spoke, Qumsiyeh was arrested in al Walija trying to stop the Israeli bulldozers.)
If Professor Qumsiyeh can see the human and environmental cost of the wall, Michel Awad, who teaches tourism management at the university, witnesses its economic effects. “Tourism depends on the accessibility of a destination,” he tells me. “People coming to Bethlehem have to pass through checkpoints and the separation wall, which affects the accessibility of the sites here.”
According to Awad, the wall has also annexed some of Palestine’s historical and cultural monuments into the Israeli side, so Palestinians have lost the benefits. “For example, in Bethany they built the wall just metres from the church so people have to visit from the Israeli side,” he comments.
But it’s not about just one or two sites like Bethlehem and Bethany, says Awad, adding, “They’re changing the whole trend of tourism, so visitors have to spend more time and money, on the Israeli side of the wall. Israel knows just how much income tourism creates.”
Now, Palestinians are trying to counteract these negative effects. “We are trying to create a way for people to spend more time in the Palestinian territories,” explains Awad, “but it’s hard as we don’t have a budget for tourism promotion, or any big tour operators, or a powerful media.”
Some tourism organisations are taking matters into their own hands however: creating new projects such as hiking trails, like the Nativity Trail and Abraham’s Path. Others, like Green Palestine, bring foreigners to visit Palestinians threatened by the wall and the new settlements.
Awad Abu Swai of Green Palestine takes me on a drive out of the city and down into Wadi Ahmed: a green valley of ancient terraced vines and olives which the Israelis want to uproot to build hundreds of more new housing units. This is the valley that Professor Qumsiyeh pointed out from Bethlehem University’s rooftop.
It’s also the home of farmer Abed Rabah, 50, who lives here alone without water or electricity. The track-down to his farm is obstructed, so we leave the car and walk. “The Israelis blocked Abed’s land with this gate,” says Abu Swai. “His friends brought him water by hosepipe, but then they cut the hoses too.”
Farmer Abed Rabah meets us and invites us to take coffee inside the cave where he sleeps. It’s small with a few basic furnishings, but he likes it. “In winter it’s like a stove, and in summer it’s really cool,” he tells me. And he describes how he’s managed to resist the encroaching settlements when so many others have failed.
“Most Palestinians made a big mistake. During the British Mandate they didn’t declare all the land they owned, to avoid paying taxes on it. The British government registered everything, and when the Israelis came, they took the registration documents. But my grandfather had the papers to show he owned the land.”
Rabah is not afraid of the Israeli army, despite the daily harassment, but the settlements are now very close to his farm. He points to the opposite hill, across the valley. “That is going to be another 900 housing units. The whole valley is going to be 2,500 units. I am scared about what is coming in the future.”
He shows me a book signed by tourists from around the globe – England, France, the United States – who have come to visit him in his cave. “I make coffee for the whole world!” he says proudly. “I even sent a letter to President Obama and invited him.” Like Tony Blair, he hasn’t replied.
Israeli citizens are welcome too. “One day, 200 Israelis came to visit. But any who have weapons, they are not welcome.” His five visitors’ books are signed in Arabic, English and Hebrew. His cave has even hosted a romance between an Israeli and a Palestinian who met here, fell in love and eventually married.
The conversation turns to the possibility of a third intifada. Abu Swai of Green Palestine doesn’t believe this would solve anything. “The best thing is non-violence,” he says. “Every week I bring tourists from around the world to farms like this to see the situation for themselves. This is better than any intifada.”
Like Claire Anastas back in Bethlehem, Abed Rabah is not intending to leave his farm. As I get up to go, he hands me a slice of watermelon from his garden, waving away my gratitude. “It’s not my watermelon,” he explains, “It’s the nation’s watermelon.”
Gail Simmons is a journalist and travel writer.
The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial policy.