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Berlusconi in Bethlehem: Wall? What wall?

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BETHLEHEM (Reuters) - Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi travelled along the road from Jerusalem to Bethlehem on Wednesday but failed to notice its most talked-about landmark -- an eight-meter (25-foot) high Israeli security wall.

“I’m going to let you down because I didn’t notice,” Berlusconi told an Italian journalist who asked him about his impressions of the concrete barrier at a joint news conference with his host, Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas.

Protocol obliged Berlusconi to get out in the cold and rain to switch from an Israeli car to a Palestinian one at the Israeli checkpoint in the wall, where a steel gate controls access to and from the West Bank, Palestinian sources confirmed.

However, the Italian leader said he had not paid attention.

“I was getting my thoughts in order on what I would I would say to the president,” he said. “I apologize for that.”

The wall at Bethlehem is part of a long barrier constructed mainly of security fencing, which Israel says is necessary to prevent armed Palestinian militants and suicide bombers from reaching its cities from the West Bank.

High-profile visitors to Bethlehem’s Church of the Nativity, where Christians believe Jesus was born, are often invited to inspect the graffiti-covered wall.

Pope Benedict, who visited in May, said it was “a stark reminder of the stalemate” in relations between Israel and the Palestinians.

Palestinians say the barrier is not about Israel ensuring its security but a means of grabbing West Bank land for itself.

Reporting by Valentina Rusconi and Douglas Hamilton; writing by Douglas Hamilton; editing by Andrew Dobbie