Cover Story

What do Palestinians want?

"What do Palestinians want?" Continued...

Issue: "O Jerusalem," April 10, 2010

It's also costing American taxpayers a lot of money. Since 1971 U.S. aid to Israel has averaged $2.6 billion a year. Now the United States through USAID provides $800 million a year in development aid to the West Bank and Gaza-more than USAID provides anywhere else in the world except Afghanistan and Pakistan.

Israeli security interests featured prominently at last week's American-Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC) convention in Washington. But what about the interests of the region's 2.5 million Palestinians-including approximately 60,000 who identify themselves as Christians-who also have a stake in the peace process?

To understand their situation and perspective, a good place to begin is at the beginning: Bethlehem. Long before it became the birthplace of Jesus, it was where Jacob buried his wife Rachel, the home of Boaz and Ruth, and the birthplace of David. Today the old city is mostly inaccessible to Jews living in Israel. And Christians from Bethlehem, who like to call themselves the descendents of the shepherds keeping watch during Jesus' birth, find it hard if not impossible to travel to Jerusalem-although it's only five miles away.

That's largely because Islamic militants launched attacks from Bethlehem on Israeli Defense Forces (IDF) and a nearby Jewish settlement during the second intifada. In 2002 the al-Aqsa Martyrs' Brigade took up positions inside the Church of the Nativity and held it for 39 days. The terrorist group spread fear throughout the city, as attacks on Christians (including rapes of women) rose, and the militants forcibly took over areas of the city once dominated by Christian families.

By 2005 the violence had subsided but Israel did not forget: The military built a concrete security wall that partly surrounds Bethlehem, with one section running directly into town, where a corner observation tower rises only two blocks from the five-star hotel where Biden met with PA president Mahmoud Abbas last month.

The wall is 25 feet high and built of reinforced concrete sections-part of the 440-mile security barrier project Israel has said it will complete this year. Here the wall cuts over 10 miles inside the West Bank, worrying residents that it will become the de facto boundary with Israel should a two-state solution someday be formalized.

"It's the first time in history that Jerusalem and Bethlehem have been segregated," said Jad Isaac, a Palestinian Christian who heads the Applied Research Institute in Beit Sahour, a town next door to Bethlehem. Israelis like to call the security wall a "fence," but in Bethlehem it is a wall-dividing the city from dozens of its own established residential homes and cordoning off Rachel's Tomb from Palestinian residents.

Overall the security wall has reduced suicide bomb attacks against Israel; estimates range anywhere from 70 percent to 90 percent. But security for Israelis has come at a high price for Palestinians. Unemployment in Bethlehem shot to over 60 percent following its construction, according to Isaac, and tourism has plummeted. Tour buses from Jerusalem now make day excursions to Bethlehem and discourage visitors from staying overnight in its hotels. Israel has constructed bypass roads on the other side of the wall that further reduce commerce-roads that Palestinian identity card holders are prohibited from entering at checkpoints.

Since the Oslo Accords, Israelis and the 1.5 million Israeli Arabs who hold Israeli citizenship carry blue identity cards. Palestinians carry green identity cards. "I could lose my mobile [phone] and all my money," a businessman in Bethlehem named Elias told me, "but I live in fear of losing my identity card."

The cards allow Palestinians entry into Bethlehem and other parts of the West Bank-but not Jerusalem. Likewise, blue card holders may not enter Bethlehem and other West Bank cities. Anyone is free to apply for a special permit from the Israeli government, but most requests are denied except for humanitarian or medical reasons. Those who receive permits say they may expire in seven days, or six months-making it difficult to plan for business and other travel purposes. Elias partners in an olive wood export business using a U.S. distributor; given the security barriers, it's easier to do business overseas, he said, than to try to build the business within the region.

One of his partners, also a Palestinian identity card holder, is married to an Israeli Arab. Both are Christians. The husband, who like most Palestinian Christians asked not to be named in print, explained to me that because of security restrictions he cannot travel with his wife to Jericho, a city also within the West Bank and about 25 miles away. His wife with her blue card must travel using the Israeli roads west of town and into Jerusalem. He with his green card must use the roads for Palestinians that run east and north out of Bethlehem.

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