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Israeli wall ‘fractures community’

PALESTINIANS in Bethlehem say the imminent completion by Israel of the security wall separating their town from Jerusalem will fracture the Christian community in the Holy Land.

"We feel that this act disconnects the two dioceses," said Carol Dabdoub, a Palestinian Christian and director of the Open Bethlehem action group. "As Christians, we cannot freely connect with the diocese of Jerusalem any longer. We have no access to the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, and cannot easily participate in other services in the city that is sacred to Christians."

In order to leave their town, the inhabitants of Bethlehem must pass though an Israeli military checkpoint close to Rachel’s Tomb. The elaborate process, residents say, can take an hour or more. Work on completing the wall is proceeding after the Israeli Supreme Court rejected an appeal from Palestinians to re-route it close to the tomb.

The completion of the wall is also accelerating the economic decline of Bethlehem. According to Ms Dabdoub, "The Israelis are making our little town smaller than ever through the confiscation of land and the restrictions faced by pilgrims. We have seen 400 families leave in the last four years."

The inhabitants of Bethlehem are also concerned by the expand-ing presence of Jewish settlements around the town. One ultra-Orthodox group last year announced plans to build about 400 apartments close to the site of Rachel’s Tomb.

In the opinion of Bethlehem’s mayor, Dr Victor Batarseh, "Recent land confiscation and works around Rachel’s Tomb are illegal, and have no security basis. This is an act of land expropriation and a serious threat to the economic and social life of the town." He said that he shared "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."

The Rachel’s Tomb area was once a central and busy artery between Jerusalem and Bethlehem, and shops there offered a wide range of goods to Palestinians and visitors to the Holy Land. According to Open Bethlehem, in the past four years 72 of the 80 businesses there have closed.

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