BETHLEHEM, West Bank (Reuters) - Christian visitors coming to Bethlehem this week to celebrate the birth of Christ will encounter a concrete wall with watchtowers, built by Israel between nearby Jerusalem and the Church of the Nativity.
In a message to remind the world of the barrier’s existence, the Palestine Liberation Organisation said the wall symbolizes a “Christmas without hope” for the ancient city, where normal life is fragmented and stifled by Israel’s security measures.
Israel began building a major barrier in the occupied West Bank when the second Palestinian intifada (uprising) launched lethal suicide bomb attacks on Israeli cafes and buses in the early years of this decade.
“Israelis live in the shadow of great fear that is preventing them from taking courageous decisions to end the struggle,” said Jordanian Fuad al-Tuwal, who is Latin Patriarch of the Holy Land.
“The separation wall is a physical presence that embodies that fear,” he said in his annual Christmas speech.
The World Court has declared the barrier, which is about 8 meters (25 ft) tall in places, illegal because it was built on land Israel occupied in a 1967 war, territory where Palestinians hope to build a future state.
“For the first time in 2,000 years of Christianity, Bethlehem and Jerusalem will be divided from one another following completion of Israel’s wall in the northern part of Bethlehem City,” the PLO message said.
Locals say the wall already puts a heavy damper on life, though evidently it does not yet deter tourists and pilgrims.
“We expect about 40,000 to 50,000 tourists to come to Bethlehem for the Christmas celebrations this year from all around the world,” said Kholoud Daibes-Abu Dayyeh, the Palestinian Authority’s minister of tourism.
Palestinians denounce the wall as a way of seizing land as well as a tool for consolidating Israel’s disputed control of all Jerusalem.
But Israel says its barrier, an army-guarded fence for most of its existing 400 km (240 miles) or so, is not permanent: it can be dismantled, but not yet.
The last suicide bomb attack in Israel was 3 years ago, killing three Israelis in the Red Sea resort of Eilat.
Many Christmas visitors are Palestinian Christians from Israel and the West Bank, including a few from the Israeli-blockaded Gaza Strip, controlled by Hamas Islamists opposed to peace with Israel.
Gaza sources said Israel told the church this week it would allow in only 200 out of at least 700 who sought to go.
“During the last four years there was significant improvement in the tourism sector, and this sector means an improvement in all economic performance,” said Samir Hazboun, head of Bethlehem’s Chamber of Commerce and Industry.
“But it has not cured our economic problems. How can we promote Bethlehem as a holy tourism site while it is surrounded by an ugly concrete wall?” he said.
Patriarch Fuad predicted the healthiest commercial Christmas for Bethlehem since the intifada uprising began in 2000. It would be “like the year 2000, when there was a record number of visitors in pilgrimage history,” he said.
But trade was not the issue.
“The best gift we strive for is greater than money or wealth, it is peace,” he said. “It is the wish of all who live on this land, both Palestinians and Israelis.”
Passing through steel gates in the on their way from Jerusalem to Bethlehem, this year’s visitors will see a large sign hanging by an Israel army watchtower.
“Peace be with You,” it says.
Writing by Douglas Hamilton, Additional reporting by Erika Solomon, Editing by Richard Williams