Strangling Bethlehem, Foreclosing Peace

September 24, 2005

"It is unconscionable that Bethlehem should be allowed to die slowly from strangulation.”

—Archbishop Desmond Tutu, 2005 1

Bethlehem has historically been a beacon of multiculturalism and coexistence in the Middle East. It has also been integral to the social and economic fabric of Palestinian society.

Construction of Israel’s Wall in and around Bethlehem, ongoing Israeli settlement (colony) expansion, and other Israeli policies designed to sever Bethlehem from occupied East Jerusalem have decimated Bethlehem’s once vibrant economy and transformed the historic city into a concrete ghetto. All this continues despite the International Court of Justice’s July 9th, 2004 opinion, which deemed Israel’s Wall and all of its settlements illegal.

This ghettoization of Bethlehem is not only destroying ancient communities, but is also directly impeding prospects for Middle East peace. Because of Bethlehem’s significance to and historic ties with Palestinian East Jerusalem, Bethlehem’s demise may well mark the beginning of the end of the Two-State solution. For without East Jerusalem there can be no viable Palestinian state, and hence no viable peace.

This fact sheet outlines the grave threats facing Bethlehem, and by extension a viable peace today. The damage visited upon Bethlehem, Jerusalem, and the Two-State Solution could potentially be reversed if appropriate action is taken now.

For illustration of this fact sheet, kindly see the accompanying map entitled “Strangling Bethlehem,” available at, http:// , last checked, December 22, 2005.

A- Severing Bethlehem from Jerusalem:

The city of Bethlehem is located just 6 kilometers south of Jerusalem’s Old City. Historically, Bethlehem, East Jerusalem, and Ramallah—which lies immediately to Jerusalem’s north—comprise one interdependent economic/cultural unit known as “Metropolitan East Jerusalem.” Metropolitan East Jerusalem accounted for 30-40% of all economic activity in the West Bank and the Gaza Strip combined. Currently, this metropolitan unit is being fragmented by Israel’s Wall and settlements, which are illegal under international law.

For an investigative report detailing Israel’s strategy in and around occupied East Jerusalem, please see “Israelis Act to Encircle East Jerusalem,” THE WASHINGTON POST, February 7th, 2005, available at

As a result of Israel’s Wall and settlements, Bethlehemites can no longer access jobs, markets, social and religious services, and family in East Jerusalem. Bethlehem’s Christian and Muslim population can no longer freely worship in Jerusalem’s holy places, which as they have had done for centuries. And Bethlehem’s ancient Christian community can no longer freely perform historic rites, such as the centuries old procession from the Old City of Jerusalem, where Jesus is believed to have been crucified and buried before being resurrected and ascending to Heaven, to the Church of Nativity in Bethlehem, where Jesus is believed to have been born.

Ghettoizing Bethlehem with the Wall and Settlements

Israel’s Wall—a regime of concrete slabs stretching 8 meters high, razor wire, fences, trenches, and sniper towers—is nearly complete in the Bethlehem area. Rather than being built on the internationally-recognized boundary with Israel—the 1967 boundary—Israel is building the Wall deep within Bethlehem’s governorate , at one point reaching 7kms into Bethlehem. Moreover, sections of Israel’s Wall slice through urban areas of the city of Bethlehem itself.

Bethlehem City: The Wall has decimated the Palestinian neighborhood around Rachel’s Tomb, located inside Bethlehem’s municipal jurisdiction. According to the United Nations Office for Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs, 72 out of 80 businesses in the area have closed or relocated to the city center between June 2002 and October 2004.

Bethlehem Governorate: The Wall severs Bethlehem from its agricultural hinterland to the west. Here, the Wall dips 7km into the Bethlehem governorate in order to effectively annex the Etzion settlement (colony) bloc, in the process seizing 77.3% of its western villages’ remaining agricultural lands, as well as water resources that have historically served the entire Jerusalem region. This area also contains much of Bethlehem’s remaining room for development and its nature reserve. As a result, Bethlehem will be largely restricted to its urban area, deprived of essential water and agricultural resources, left with relatively little room for its natural growth and development. This also means that Bethlehemites will not even have a real park/nature reserve to which to take their children.

Terminal: On November 15th, Israel opened a new terminal to better restrict movement between Bethlehem and Jerusalem. Like other terminals currently being built in the oPt, the Bethlehem terminal resembles an international border crossing, despite the fact that it is located within Bethlehem’s municipality. It lies two kilometers south of the 1967 boundary. Citing the Israeli Ministry of Foreign Affairs, the Palestine Monitoring Group reports that the cost of each new terminal is estimated at 120-170 million shekels (NIS) (approximately US$26 – $37 million).

According to the Palestine Monitoring Group, to exit Bethlehem, tourists and passengers of private vehicles must pass through a total of 4 barred revolving doors, 2 metal detectors, and 1 turnstile. An 8 meter long by 6 meter high iron gate now regulates vehicular travel between Bethlehem and Jerusalem.

Settlement (Colony) Expansion and Settler-only Roads: Nearly all of the Bethlehem area settlements (colonies) are currently expanding, often on privately-owned Palestinian land. These settlements and settler-only roads, which themselves act as barriers to free movement and development, encircle Bethlehem. A new settler-only road linking the Tekoa settlement bloc (built on the so-called “Palestinian” side of the Wall) with Jerusalem is in its final stages of construction. This road cuts through Beit Sahour, to Bethlehem’s east, and ensures that the urban area of Bethlehem will be completely surrounded by settlements, the Wall, and settler-only bypass roads.

Jabal Abu Ghneim (Har Homa) and the last geographic Bethlehem-Jerusalem link (“Zone 13”): Jabal Abu Ghneim is located within what Israel defines as its “municipality” of Jerusalem, but what the United States and the rest of the international community regard as occupied territory. No reliable statistics are available on the number of new units currently being built in Har Homa, although photographic evidence documents the construction of scores of new units in the illegal settlement (colony). The last geographic link between Bethlehem is an open area to the east of Jabal Abu Ghneim, near the planned expansion area of Har Homa. These lands, which are also within the municipal development plan of Beit Sahour, are privately owned Palestinian lands in an area known as “Zone 13.” This area represents the last remaining geographic link between Bethlehem and occupied East Jerusalem. Historically, Bethlehem and East Jerusalem have been economically and culturally interdependent, relying on one another for complementary markets and the provision of basic services.

B. Closing Bethlehem with the Closure Regime: :

Israel’s internal “closure regime” is a system of Israeli army checkpoints, road-blocks, settler-only roads, and permits that further restricts Palestinian movement between Palestinian communities entirely within the occupied West Bank The World Bank cites the closure regime as the direct cause of the humanitarian crisis within the occupied Palestinian territory: New statistics suggest that over half of Palestinians subsist on $2.20 per day or less, despite paying high electricity and gas rates as a result of Israeli control over resources and trade.

Permits: Like all Palestinians in the West Bank, Bethlehemites need to obtain permits from the Israeli military to access Jerusalem. These permits are difficult and expensive to obtain, and are not always honored. Bethlehemites with land, jobs, school, hospital services, and family on the other side of the Wall must apply for permits. During the past five years, the flow of people and goods between Bethlehem and East Jerusalem has reached record lows. Bethlehemites must also obtain permits to take private cars or trucks on roads outside of Bethlehem, further increasing transportation costs and impeding economic recovery. Moreover, travel between Palestinian communities entirely within West Bank is highly unpredictable as a result of ad-hoc military or “flying” checkpoints that only stop green-plated Palestinian cars, and typically not the yellow-plated Israeli settler cars. Thus, a trip from Bethlehem to Ramallah, which once took as little as 35 minutes when Bethlehemites could drive through Palestinian East Jerusalem, can range between one to six hours on any given day.

“Valley of Fire”: In addition to being denied free access to East Jerusalem, Bethlehemites cannot move to other parts of the West Bank or the Gaza Strip. Instead of being able to freely use Route 60—the historic Palestinian north-south road link, now reserved primarily for use by Israeli settlers—Bethlehemites must take an alternate road, known as Wadi an-Nar or the “Valley of Fire,” a former British military supply road that is steep, winding and notoriously dangerous. According to Israeli plans, the “Valley of Fire” road will be the main north-south link for Palestinians in the West Bank, bypassing East Jerusalem completely.

C. Inducing Christian and Muslim Palestinian Flight: : 

The ongoing fragmentation of Metropolitan East Jerusalem imminently threatens the economic, social, and cultural viability of East Jerusalem’s indigenous Christian and Muslim Palestinian communities. Bethlehem’s Christian community is also at imminent risk. While roughly 20,000 Christians remain in the Bethlehem district, the Bethlehem municipality reports that over 400 Christian families have left Bethlehem in the last four and a half years alone. Christian families typically report leaving because of the dire economic conditions and Israeli military activity. 

  • 1. Issued in a statement to the a new Palestinian initiative called “Open Bethlehem,” available at , last checked December 22, 2005.
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