On March 1, 2003, the first slab of the separation barrier—or Apartheid Wall, as it is called in Palestine—was erected in Bethlehem. Ten years later, the 14-foot concrete slabs now weave through the outskirts of the city, surrounding homes and casting shadows over entire neighborhoods and economically choking the Palestinian residents of Bethlehem. “Before the wall, everyone used to work in Jerusalem—and people from Jerusalem used to come to Bethlehem and support our shops,” Issa Mussa, a member of the Tourist Police in Bethlehem told me. “But now almost no one in Bethlehem is able to work there because of the wall.”
Jerusalem is only 8 kilometers away from Bethlehem. However, even the Palestinians who are able to work in Jerusalem have to leave in the early morning to pass through Checkpoint 300—a notoriously high security checkpoint that can take up to two hours. For many living in or around Bethlehem this is their best hope for making a living. “If you don’t have a car to be a driver or a shop to be a shop keeper, it is very hard to have a job in Palestine,” Yousef Abu Jamar, a cab driver from Bethlehem told me.
Even the shopkeepers are frustrated. “The tourists come to see the Church of the Nativity and then they leave. No one comes to my shop!” said Mohammad Asmak, a shopkeeper in tourist-ridden Manger Square near the Church of the Nativity.
Despite the economic angst that the wall has caused in Bethlehem, the Israeli Government plans to expand it through the adjacent Cremisan Valley—the only green space in Bethlehem, and a beloved natural respite for many Palestinians. The Cremisan Valley is strategically situated between two Israeli settlements—Har Gilo and Gilo—which house a combined total of 35,500 Jewish settlers. If the wall is built according to its set plan, it would re-allocate 47 percent of the land of the valley to the Israeli side, ultimately allowing the two settlements to connect. Along the way, it would place a checkpoint between Palestinian children and their schools, militarizing their commute and creating the potential for violent clashes between students and Israeli Defense Forces (IDF) soldiers.
Currently, the most imposing segments of the wall snake through Bethlehem’s Aida Refugee Camp—which, though close in geographic proximity to the sunny and lush Cremisan Valley, is characterized by the shadow of the wall and clusters of IDF soldiers patrolling trash-filled streets. Clashes between the Palestinian youth and the soldiers are frequent—and soldiers respond with full and violent force. Just last week, a 13 year old boy was shot with live ammunition
If all goes according to Israel’s current plan with the separation barrier, the Cremisan Valley will begin to look far more like Aida Refugee Camp.
On Friday, in commemoration of the anniversary of the first slab of the Apartheid Wall and to draw attention to the potential plight of the Crimisan Valley, Un Ponte Per Betlemme, a Christian organization in Bethlehem, organized a peaceful mass and march through the valley, calling upon “all who believe in strength of the prayer to intercede for peace with God and the Virgin Mary.” Though the gathering occurs annually, this year it bore a special meaning—bringing many of the nuns who practice at the nearby convent and have joined Palestinian land owners in court advocating a different route for the wall.
First, a small mass assembled under the olive trees—near the foundations of the wall that are already etched into the rolling valley. Afterwards, the participants—predominantly Christian, but some still waving the Palestinian flags and wearing the kaffiyehs that would be seen in a typical Palestinian protest—marched through the rolling hills, not yet demarcated as to which land is Israeli and which land is Palestinian, towards the Wall, stopping and praying twice on the holy land before finally performing a rosary at Checkpoint 300, at the Wall itself.
Father José Maria, a Spanish priest who originally came to Bethlehem on a Christian pilgrimage told me, “This is the Holy Land for all of us—Christians, Muslims and Jews. We can exist here in peace—but this wall separates us as humans, making that peace impossible.”