Tuesday, November 28, 2006

ISRAEL-OPT: Ghettos form in shadow of the wall

A lorry carries another slab for Israel's separation wall in Bethlehem.

UN Office For The Coordination Of Humanitarian Affairs (IRIN) Report

"BETHLEHEM, 28 Nov 2006 (IRIN) - Israel began building an eight-metre high, 703km-long concrete barrier through the West Bank in the occupied Palestinian territories in 2002. To date, some 670km of it has been completed.

Israel says the wall is a security measure to protect Israeli citizens from terrorist attacks by Palestinian militants, but when the barrier is completed, about 10 per cent of the West Bank will be inside Israel.

In July 2004, the International Court of Justice (ICJ) in the Hague ruled that the barrier’s route, which weaves around the western border of the majority occupied territory was illegal under international humanitarian and human rights law, because it ‘gravely’ infringes on a number of rights of Palestinians living in the West Bank.

In five articles, IRIN examines the human consequences of the wall for both Israelis and Palestinians.

Palestinian tour guide Shukri Abu Allis from Bethlehem sits with a colleague in a car and knocks back a glass of vodka and Red Bull. “We have no work at all so what can we do? Business was slowly getting better after the end of the [second] intifada [Palestinian uprising against Israeli occupation] last year but now we have the wall and then came the war with Hezbollah,” said 35-year-old Abu Allis, bemoaning the lack of tourists in the once-thriving town.

Barely five kilometres separate holy sites in Jerusalem’s Old City and the Church of the Nativity in Bethlehem, where Christians believe that Jesus Christ was born. Tourists used to stream between the two cities – but the route is now blocked by the eight-metre-high concrete slabs of the wall Israel calls its ‘security fence’.

Ostensibly designed to keep terrorists from getting into Israel, the wall also stops tourists going in the other direction, turning the once prosperous town of Bethlehem into a ghetto.

“We get a few coach-loads coming through, but the wall basically puts people off. It’s a big barrier. They think it might be dangerous on the other side and they don’t want to go through the hassle of the checkpoint,” said Abu Allis.

Anyone wanting to cross the wall must go through a sprawling modern building, known as a terminal, where Israeli soldiers check passports and enter the details of Palestinian IDs on their computer databases.

On the Bethlehem side of the wall, empty restaurants and boarded-up shops show the wall’s devastating impact on the town’s economy.

Mortal blow

When you surround a town with 50km of wall and restrict access in and out of it, you deal it a mortal blow. Thousands here depend on tourism – not just hotel owners but craftsmen and taxi drivers,” Suhail Khalilieh, settlement coordinator at the Applied Research Institute Jerusalem (ARIJ), said.

“It wasn’t just foreigners coming here. We also had internal tourism from Christian Palestinian families living in Israel. That has now completely ended,” he added.

Before the beginning of the second intifada in October 2000, more than 90,000 tourists visited Bethlehem every month. By 2004, just 7,250 tourists a month were coming through, and although things picked up a little before Israel’s conflict with Hezbollah in Lebanon this summer, since then, tourism in Bethlehem seems to have dropped even more, according to Abu Allis.

The area around Rachel’s Tomb - a holy site for Jews and Muslims located just inside Bethlehem - used to be home to restaurants and shops catering to Israelis, Palestinians and foreign tourists. But the wall now completely surrounds Rachel’s Tomb and leaves only one access point, from its western side.

Since the construction of the wall began in 2002, 72 of the 80 businesses in the vicinity of Rachel’s Tomb, have either closed or moved to the centre of the city, a study by the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA) found.

Rather than live a life stripped of opportunity, many Bethlehem residents are simply leaving. “The rich are leaving because they want to be able to live their lives, and the poor are leaving because they want to improve their quality of life,” said Khalilieh.

The Israeli military told IRIN that it is sensitive to the humanitarian concerns of Palestinians, but that it must have the wall to prevent suicide terror attacks by Palestinians in Israel.

A pattern of ghettoisation and population flight is being repeated in other towns along the length of the barrier.

In the northern West Bank town of Qalqilya - which is enclosed to the north, west and south by the barrier and can be shut off from the east by the Israeli military - about 4,000 people have moved out, mostly back to nearby villages, leaving about 600 shops to close, Palestinian activists said.

In al-Ram, a once bustling area on the main road between Jerusalem and Ramallah, businesses have begun shutting in anticipation of the barrier’s completion. Here, the wall is built straight down the middle of the main street, cutting through a built up area, and slicing al-Ram off from the rest of Jerusalem.

“Many of my customers are living on the other side of the wall. They used to be just a few metres away but now it is so difficult to come here that they just don’t. Before the wall I used to make 1,000 shekels [US $232] a day. Now I make 100 [US $23],” said Jimmy Ismail, who runs a lingerie and perfume shop.

“Many people here are leaving their shops. They don’t make enough money to rent the building. I am going to close. I don’t have enough money to pay my employees,” he said."

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