Monday, November 28, 2005
Vigil on the International Day of Solidarity with the Palestinian People
posted by: beitsahourplayer at 10:01 PM

Vigil on the International Day of Solidarity with the Palestinian People


The East Jerusalem YMCA Advocacy Desk, and the Palestinian Center for Rapprochement between People, invite you to a vigil on Tuesday November 29, marking the international day of Solidarity with the Palestinian People.

On this day, Palestinians remember the 1947 Partition of Palestine when the United Nations issued resolution No. 181. The resolution separated Palestine into an Arab state and a Jewish State (Israel). The Jewish state was established on over half of the land, though Jews in Palestine owned no more than 6 percent of the land.

Land confiscation has continued since 1948, through war, and the custodian law which enabled the state of Israel to expropriate Palestinian land under the "Absentee's Property" law.

We invite you to join us on this vigil to affirm your solidarity with the Palestinian people and their inalienable rights of statehood and land.

The vigil will be held at 5:30 pm in downtown Beit Sahour, near the Orthodox Church. You can bring your own banners if you like. Please make it relevant

Sorry for the short notice, but we will be very glad to see you all there

For directions please call 02 277 20 18 or 0546247459

Sunday, November 27, 2005
Ethnic Cleansing on Rachel's Day
posted by: Frubious Bandersnatch at 8:48 PM
Article from 14th Nov.
Yesterday was Rachel's day, the day when all three classical theist religions should have joined together to commemorate the death of Saint Rachel, a figure that is sacred to Christians, Muslims and Jews alike. Unfortunately, in a religious apartheid, only the Jewish people were allowed to visit the tomb.

In fact, it was a testimony to the ideology of the Israeli state, that the entire northern area of Bethlehem (a Christian and Muslim Palestinian city) was closed to 'provide security for worshippers' as one soldier told me. This is only a temporary problem however, next year the issue will have been 'solved' permanently.

Now, on a slightly different topic. Some on the Colonial- Israeli side argue that the Apartheid Wall is necessary to protect Israel from terrorist attack. In reality this has some truth to it, but lacks detail. By 'Israel' they also mean the illegal Israeli settlements which have been condemned by the international community, the United Nations and numerous Human rights organizations including the Israeli group Bet Selem. In order to do this, the wall must cut deep into what is internationally recognized as Palestinian territory.

To further demonstrate their utter contempt for international law and the human rights of Palestinians, the wall also cuts deep into northern Bethlehem itself, providing a tunnel and what can only be described as a large box, around Rachel's tomb. Also included in this box are the houses of many Palestinians. See map below.

Map courtesy of ARIJ.

Now, there may be some people out there (who don’t believe in international law) that think that the settlements should remain. I know this view exists. However, to isolate an area of a community (residences marked in pink on the map) so that the owners will eventually have to leave, in what is in effect a slow act of ethnic cleansing, just to guarantee that Jewish people remain the exclusive owners of a religious monument (which should belong to everybody) is frankly sickening.
The following photos show the construction of this mini-ghetto as it is taking place. I could write a Five Thousand Word essay on the many ways in which this construction demonstrates Israel's complete and total contempt for any form of peace agreement, or the establishment of a viable Palestinian state, but I will let the photos do most of the talking. Remember when viewing these photos – NO JEWISH PEOPLE LIVE IN THIS AREA WHATSOEVER!

Construction of the box is not yet finished. This makes these pictures quite unique. One month ago, none of these wall segments existed. In one month's time most of the gaps through which the photos are taken will be sealed.

Even when I tried to dispassionately analyze this photo, I could not arrive at any logic answer whatsoever – even from a military strategic point of view. Surely if they didn’t want anyone climbing the tree they would have just cut it down? Is it just an extremely morbid impression of the statue of Liberty? I genuinely couldn't work it out.

Now, look at the shot above closely. (note that you can still see past the houses on the other side to the scenery beyond.) The houses to the left will be left out the box, the houses and businesses to the right will be blocked in. That's how life works if you are Palestinian - the arbitrary whim of some Israeli construction surveyor can dictate the fate of your home permanently. In other countries at least people get compensation.

This shot - of the same houses – was taken three days later.

This shot is of the same house from the front….

…Three days later.

On Rachel's day, as I mentioned earlier, the whole of northern Bethlehem was closed. Some higher-up security figures were probably disappointed to hear that the construction of the (Israeli only) wall tunnel, which would bring worshippers into the box, was not yet complete. Whilst the people of Bethlehem sat in their prison, thousands of Orthodox Israelis gathered at the gates of the city to worship Rachel in their stolen territory.

I may be naïve, but I simply do not understand how they believe this is acceptable. I don't hate them; I just wish they would tell me why. Many Palestinians would also like the same question to be answered.

Finally, at the wall gate itself, the long anticipated steel ghetto doors have arrived and are awaiting placement. I will try to keep you up to date.

To all moderate Israelis out there, you know the security argument is bollocks, especially in the light of the above evidence. The government is using your fear of terrorism to carry out these disgusting projects, such as the one documented above.

It is your duty and your moral obligation to do something about this. If you're not part of the solution you're part of the problem, and if you're reading this blog in the first place, you must already have some nagging doubts. Listen to them.
Friday, November 18, 2005
The Terminal
posted by: bethlehembloggers at 9:28 PM


Toine van Teeffelen

November 16, 2005


On this Palestinian Independence Day I decide to take a break and go and visit the zoo in Jerusalem together with the children. Mary, who of course cannot join because she doesn’t have a permit or a foreign passport-with-a-three-month visa as I do, puts fruits in the bag for me and for Jara and Tamer. Should we put a knife in the bag, to cut the fruits? Better not to have an iron knife, but a plastic one, we think, because the soldiers at the checkpoint may become suspicious. I make a quick check on the Internet to see whether there are problems to be expected on the road. The Bethlehem taxi driver tells us that today the new terminal is in use. We approach not a checkpoint but rather something that resembles an international border. The people had heard that it would open one of these days. Ironically it happened on Independence Day. For sure no coincidence. As if the message is: If you want to have your independence, we will be happy to grant you that by establishing an international border and lock you up.

I count four inspection moments. First, at the gate in the Wall, where a soldier checks whether I have a passport. I wave it. Then we enter, through iron corridors, into the terminal itself. We pass a glass booth where a soldier quickly checks the passport. A Palestinian woman wants to enter a revolving fence but does not have a tasreeh [permit]. A rather loud-speaking soldier at the other side of the fence refuses her entry. The kids and I pass, somewhat overwhelmed by all the iron and stone around us and by the huge size of the hall. It reminds of Eretz at the Israeli entry to Gaza. Months ago I read in Haaretz about an army representative who stated that the terminal would make it possible for people to wait quietly, without being disturbed by heat or rain, and that toilet facilities would be available. Indeed, we pass by male and female toilets. Everywhere huge signs that people should keep the place clean.

The hall is a combination of iron revolving gates, corridors and high roofs, and big and small signs. We are waiting for some minutes in front of another revolving fence with a red light on top of it. Through the fence we watch a Palestinian trying to understand the Hebrew-spoken orders of a female soldier. She apparently wants him to take his belt off. Or is it his shoes? She speaks through a loudspeaker from behind glass. The loudspeaker speaks very loud, with an echo due to the size of the hall. Like at Eretz, the feeling is that cattle rather than humans are inspected. Although not quite, because of this emphasis upon cleanliness. But modern cattle places are also rather clean, I ponder. How will the place look like after some months?

Another woman links up to the queue. She giggles nervously. Usually people waiting at checkpoints are angry or passive but the iron and technology and size are so overwhelming here that they must primarily feel themselves out of place. Jara starts panicking because we forgot to take the bag with apples and now she thinks that the soldiers will ask us why we are bringing a knife without fruits. The light turns green and we pass the revolving door. The soldier lowers her voice when she sees me and Jara, with Tamer on my arm. I remember that long ago Mary used to try to enter checkpoints with baby Jara on her arm, so as to soften the soldiers’ mood. That now looks an almost romantic past. No way that you could talk yourself here through. I put my things in my bag which is X-rayed. "Don’t bring your hand too close to the bag," the soldier warns. She is perhaps instructed to be strict during this first day of the opening of the terminal. Jara is relieved that the plastic knife stays hidden in the bag. Through the loudspeaker the soldier tells me "Have a nice day," but much too loud. That is the third time to hear this, I count.

Everything is here out of place and out of proportion. We then go to inspection point number four. The passport goes through the glass window and is thoroughly looked upon from all sides. Have a nice day, we hear again, mechanically. Relieved we walk out of the terminal. Jara pulls my arm and whispers in my ear that she sees a soldier doing pee-pee behind a pillar. She giggles and asks why he is doing so. Don’t they learn to go to a toilet?

On the way to the zoo Jara gasps at the greenery alongside the roads. How beautiful it is here, she exclaims. When walking through the zoo, the comparison with the terminal presses itself upon me. The various sections in the zoo are small-scale, human, diverse, and clean. The play garden hosts imaginative stone animals with two heads and other funny features. Animals walk freely in the children’s zoo. You can breath, there is no tension.

When there are some Israelis next to me watching the animals, and Jara and Tamer are shouting in Arabic, I feel a little tensed, as if this is not the right place to talk Arabic loudly. Don’t think stupidly, I tell myself. But this time there are more Arabic-speaking people in the zoo, it seems. The zoo in fact advertises that it is a meeting place for Jews of all different backgrounds as well as for Arabs. That is, Arabs from Jerusalem and Israel. I remember that half a year ago or so I talked with a headmaster of a school in a West Bank village near the Israeli border. Her village is going to be located on the wrong side of the Wall – hemmed in between the Wall and the Green Line. She said that the Israelis had approached the Palestinians to give school classes in the village the opportunity to take the train that runs along that village once a day in order to visit the zoo. A nice offer but, I suppose, intended mainly for propaganda purposes and photo opportunities, so as to show that Palestinian kids affected by the Wall don’t suffer too much. I frankly sympathized with the negative response. Palestinians need rights, not favors.

On the way back from the zoo to the Bethlehem terminal, the Israeli taxi driver says that he cannot put on the meter because the area towards the checkpoint is not within the boundaries of Jerusalem. It’s a trick to get more money. I hear myself arguing that at least according to Israeli law the checkpoint area is very much within the boundaries of Jerusalem, and that he therefore should put on the meter. I feel hopelessly hypocritical; after all, both the zoo and the terminal are on lands of Beit Jala and Bethlehem, that is, West Bank lands, not Jerusalem lands.

Then back home through the terminal. The kids and I now know where to go. I talk a little with the soldiers so as to make the atmosphere less hostile for the children. After going through the Wall gate, I turn around and see a huge painting on the Wall, showing an American lion with dollar signs and oil installations on its skin. It devours a Palestinian lamb. Next day I hear from Palestinians that they were waiting at the new border for 1.5 hour and also that tourist groups were separated from Palestinians. Soon Bethlehem will be enclosed by the Wall on three sides – the north, the south and west – with the desert on the east.

(Photo from Maan Independent News).
Thursday, November 10, 2005
Bethlehem issues call to the world
posted by: bethlehembloggers at 6:50 PM
We are happy to announce that the Open Bethlehem Project has been officially launched.

Here is their 'call to the world':

The Mayor of Bethlehem arrives in London today (Wednesday 9 November) to declare Bethlehem an open city and announce that his city is to issue a Bethlehem passport, open to anyone in the world.

The initiative is designed to transcend the imprisonment of his city by a combination of the illegal wall and militarised fences, with only two gates to the outside world.

The Mayor travels with Leila Sansour, Chief Executive of the campaign 'Open Bethlehem' who continues to Washington to launch the passport in the States. 'We recognise we have to act', says Dr Victor Batarseh, Mayor of Bethlehem. 'The passport is a way to ask people to step up to the plate. Invest in Bethlehem, bring projects to the city, or come and live among us - and you can also be a Bethlehemite.'

The current situation is grim. The walls and fences that encircle Bethlehem have turned this 4000 year old city into a prison for its 160,000 citizens. The number of tourists visiting Bethlehem has dropped from nearly 92,000 in 2000 to a mere 7,249 in 2004. In the last five years 9.3 per cent of the Christian population of Bethlehem has emigrated. Restaurants, shops and commercial outlets have shrunk and Bethlehem's economy is threatened.

The loss of Bethlehem to the world, says Leila Sansour, 'would have a devastating effect on the cause of open democracy in the Middle East, on Christianity worldwide, and on the relationship between Christian nations and other countries.'

The Open Bethlehem initiative will issue the passport to friends of Bethlehem as part of a campaign to encourage trade partnerships, investment, tourism, events, and to attract creative opportunities to the city. The core of its message is that Bethlehem is a city of openness and diversity, with a centuries old tradition of welcoming travellers, refugees and pilgrims from across the world.

Open Bethlehem already has the support of international figures such as Archbishop Desmond Tutu and former US President Jimmy Carter; the President of Palestine, Mahmoud Abbas, the Archbishop of Jerusalem His Excellency Michel Sabah and many other influential leaders in their sectors. Dr Desmond Tutu says that 'it is unconscionable that Bethlehem should be allowed to die slowly from strangulation'.

Further information:

Patricia Orr/Ellen O'Donoghue. T. 020 7222 5510 M. 07889 140139

Open Bethlehem Westminster office, SW1P 2HP

What a brilliant initiative - we urge you to get involved in this project and to spread the word. A good start would be to leave a mesaage of peace on the wall by going here.
Sunday, November 06, 2005
Open Bethlehem
posted by: bethlehembloggers at 7:54 PM
Bethlehem, a place of Christian pilgrimage for centuries, will soon be encircled by Israel's security barrier. Is the town to become no more than a museum among ancient shrines? John Harris meets the people campaigning to keep it alive


Bethlehem's Church of the Nativity seems bizarrely quiet, given that it's Sunday morning. A young man dressed in a Harley Davidson T-shirt distractedly sweeps the floor in front of its main altar, the odd group of tourists is escorted through the chapels and cloisters, and in a underground chamber, a small Armenian Orthodox service - a ceremony-cum-mystic-rite involving unbearably sweet clouds of incense and the booming incantations of a priest dressed in a pointed black hood - nears its conclusion. Every few minutes, the thought once again hits home: how strange that while people flock to churches in Tennessee, Lagos and London, the supposed birthplace of Jesus Christ is almost empty.

"For me, things are actually starting to improve," says Adel, one of the handful of tour guides who still make their living here. This is a regular refrain - that since the death of Yasser Arafat and the tentative revival of the peace process, visitors are starting to trickle back. "But it's still quiet," he continues. "People are scared to come to Bethlehem because of the checkpoints and so on. And we need them to stay here. Most of them have lunch in Bethlehem and then go back to Israel." This morning, he's seeing to the needs of a party of Indonesian Christians, who tumble into the so-called Grotto of the Nativity in a small riot of awe-struck gasps and popping flashbulbs, excitedly crowding around a 14-pointed metallic star said to mark the spot on which Christ took his first earthly breaths. "We were a little scared to come here," one of them tells me. "The Israeli soldiers came on the bus and checked all our bags. But it's OK now. We feel safe."

This is the message that Bethlehem is desperate to send to the world. This month sees the launch of an initiative - Open Bethlehem - intended to help rescue this town, at least, among all the towns on the West Bank facing isolation and collapse. By spreading word of Bethlehem's surprising calm and the endlessly hospitable spirit that has made pilgrims welcome for centuries, the campaigners hope to encourage visitors to return. There is a particular urgency because Israel's infamous security barrier is near completion, while a ring of expanding Jewish settlements eats into Palestinian territory. According to Open Bethlehem's first briefing paper, "The cradle of biblical history is in peril. Today, it resembles a bleak prison town surrounded by a concrete wall." The unspoken question is this: why, given the place of Bethlehem in the Christian imagination, does the outside world seem so unconcerned?

The predicament becomes instantly clear when you enter Bethlehem, passing from the outer reaches of Israeli-controlled Jerusalem into territory administered by the Palestinian authority. First, you see the barrier, grimly snaking from east to west. Then there is the inevitable checkpoint: 50 or so yards of sandbags, prefabs and breeze blocks, where soldiers warily check the documents of foreign visitors and those fortunate Palestinians whose IDs allow them to travel north. Here, the incense-laden piety of the Church of the Nativity is replaced by a cold tension - though its nervy ambience is as nothing compared with a similar installation that lies another half mile inside Bethlehem's limits.

Rachel's Tomb is the burial place of the wife of Jacob, described in the book of Genesis. It's a Jewish holy site, where women come to pray for their children - though, in one of those unfortunate coincidences that so unsettle Middle Eastern politics, it adjoins a Muslim cemetery. Though well within the Palestinian territory enshrined in the 1993 Oslo accords, its sanctity ensured that it would form an enclave "under the security responsibility of Israel", with the proviso that the "free movement of Palestinians" on the main road that links Jerusalem, Bethlehem and Hebron would be guaranteed. Now all that is a memory: an austere concrete roadblock, draped with the Israeli flag, scythes the road in two. Meanwhile, work is proceeding on a fortified corridor that will ferry Israeli traffic to and from the tomb, and take its place in the 500-mile length of concrete, tarmac and wire that forms the barrier, built - according to Ariel Sharon - "in order to defend our citizens against terror activities".

What this means for the local residents is simple enough. Where once there was a teeming neighbourhood, festooned with cafes and souvenir shops, there is now an arid no man's land where Israeli soldiers pace along the deserted store fronts; the few businesses that are left face imminent extinction. The grandly named Bethlehem Souvenir Centre, where displays of religious knick-knacks - vast wooden crucifixes, framed crowns of thorns, small phials of water allegedly from the River Jordan - stretch into the distance, was once busy and prosperous. Now it seems destined to fall into dereliction.

"Before, you could not cross the road here, there was so much traffic," says Khalil Jousef, a 41-year-old who has worked here for 12 years. He speaks in staccato sentences, brimming with an indignant refusal to accept what is happening just outside. "We used to have 32 workers here. Now, we have fewer than 12. But we want to survive. We want to stay. We want to live. Each one of us has three, or five, or maybe more kids. And where can we move? Tell me where?

"We are living in a prison," he says. "If you are surrounded by a wall, who will come to you? And where can we go? I have five children, and none of them have seen Jerusalem. I have tried to go: I told the soldiers, 'I want to take my children to see the Old City.' But I am not allowed."

Such is the tenor of just about every conversation I have here: rather than the stone-throwing, chaotic, nothing-left-to-lose cliché of Palestinian life, there's a recurrent sense of ordered, everyday lives rendered almost surreally impossible. Down the street from the souvenir shop, for example, are the offices and one-time family home of Bassem Khoury, an urbane 57-year-old architect, soon to be walled in by the road to the tomb. The lounge, whose bookshelves creak under the weight of Hemingway, DH Lawrence and George Bernard Shaw, suggests a life lived in elegant comfort; yet in the master bedroom, the walls are scarred with bullet holes. The lush garden is no longer in use because of the proximity of a commandeered tower block, from which Israeli soldiers yell abuse. Pointing out one particular feature, Khoury is moved to tears: a tree, within sight of a back window, from which he used to hang Christmas decorations each year, hacked down to an ugly stump by the military, lest anyone should climb it.

A few doors down is a large apartment building, home to three Palestinian families, in the midst of what now amounts to a construction site. We've been brought here by Leila Sansour, Open Bethlehem's chief executive (and director of the 2003 documentary Jeremy Hardy Vs The Israeli Army). For her, the scene in front of us is all too familiar: a Caterpillar digger scoops chunks out of the road, in preparation for the barrier's foundations, while three soldiers keep watch, and a red and black pick-up truck speeds up and down the street, slowing to a crawl whenever it passes anyone deemed worthy of attention.

The two men inside, dressed in baseball caps and sunglasses, seem to be neither policemen nor soldiers, though both are armed. They draw level with us, and begin asking a flurry of anxious questions: "Who are you? What are you doing here? Where are you from? Do you have papers? What are you taking pictures of?" When asked who they are, the man in the passenger seat can offer only that the two of them are "in charge". What of? "Well, we are in charge here."

Once he's seen our passports, they rumble on down the street, though it soon becomes obvious that suspicions have been aroused. Our plan was to visit one of the families, but each step in the direction of the entrance finds the men taking two towards us, stagily toying with their guns. We give up, and spend an hour sitting outside the deserted Christmas Tree cafe, watching the digger roar on, while the two men take their places outside a boarded-up jewellery shop.

Ariel Sharon, it should be noted, has claimed that the barrier has been built "with every effort to minimise the infringement on the daily life of the Palestinian population".

In the mid-1990s, during the interlude of optimism that followed the Israeli army's withdrawal after 18 years of occupation, Bethlehem flourished. The 1998 edition of the Rough Guide To Israel And The Palestinian Territories talked of a town "struggling to cope with all the cars, taxis and tour buses". Hotels and shops sprang up: the town's religious associations would help provide a Palestinian state with a sorely needed source of hard currency. But the second intifada of September 2000 and the subsequent Israeli reoccupation turned such hopes to dust. Worse was to come: the five-week siege at the Church of the Nativity in the spring of 2002 - when civilians and Palestinian gunmen took refuge from invading Israeli forces - reminded the rest of the world that this was a war zone.

The statistics tell the story of Bethlehem's downfall. In 2000, the average number of tourists visiting the town each month was 91,276. Last year, the figure was 7,249. In the same period, the number of people employed in the local hotel trade fell by 75%. At the Jacir Palace, a branch of the InterContinental chain that charges a mere $80 a night for its four-star luxury, we arrive to find that we're the only guests. The oddness of the experience is compounded by the background music: the theme from Zeffirelli's version of Romeo And Juliet - otherwise known as the signature tune for Simon Bates's Our Tune - on an endless loop, drifting around the deserted courtyards and occasionally mixing with calls to prayer from the local mosques.

As Bethlehem's economic prospects have crashed, so its population has altered, threatening the religious mix that has long formed a particularly fascinating aspect of the town's character. Since 2000, 10% of its Christians have emigrated; as one report by the International Centre of Bethlehem puts it, should the trend continue, "Bethlehem might very soon be little more than a Christian museum with many ancient shrines, but no living, witnessing community."

And then there is the security barrier. Just as that other wall once sat in the middle-distance of any exchange with a Berliner, so its oppressive contours inform pretty much every conversation I have in Bethlehem. One need only journey 10 minutes from the town centre to experience its cruellest effects - houses are prised away from neighbouring villages, farmland will soon be covered in asphalt, the people are snarled up in a Kafkaesque maze. Confiscation notices left on their property, based on a 50-year-old law regarding land deemed to belong to "absentees", give them 40 days to appeal, but they can only do so through courts in Israel - to which most of them are barred from travelling.

Some, though residing safely within Palestinian territory, have fallen victim to orders prohibiting anyone living within 70 metres of the barrier. In and around Bethlehem, close to 900 acres of land have already been grabbed; to make matters worse, the wall's labyrinthine route will turn some Palestinian territory into a series of strangulated territorial islands.

On our first morning in Bethlehem, we spend an hour in the hamlet of Al Khas, a clutch of houses across a narrow valley from the nearby village of Al Nouman. The two places share a hospital and school, and many of their residents come from the same extended families. Their fate, unfortunately, revolves around an Israeli-built road and fence that slices the valley in half, leaving Al Khas in the hands of the Palestinians and Al Nouman under occupation; already, the farmhouses and greenhouses on the wrong side of the divide are threatened with demolition. What will happen to the land is perhaps demonstrated by the olive groves and fruit orchards that the Israelis have already streaked with tarmac - and, just to the right, the rapidly expanding Jewish settlement of Har Homa, whose skyline is peppered with cranes.

When we arrive, we are met by Nidal Huzaibi, a 36-year-old fruit and vegetable farmer. He explains his situation against the distant hum of an Israeli army Land Rover, slowly trailing a handful of elderly Palestinians at the foot of the valley, as they attempt to make the crossing from one side to another. "These two villages are twin villages," he says. "Their lives are completely intertwined. But the argument the Israelis use is that Al Nouman is part of the suburbs of Jerusalem. They say the people who live there have no right to live there, and they have to move."

"First, they threw papers on the land," he says. "They put stones on top of them. And I found the one that applied to my farmland after the time for appeal had gone. It said, 'Under military orders, this piece of land has been confiscated.' " By his side is his 10-year-old daughter Ashjan. "Her grandparents on her mother's side live over there," he says, pointing across the valley. "And every time we have tried to visit we have been stopped. Now, we're pretty much prohibited. She last saw her grandmother three months ago."

The rest of the morning is spent driving around Bethlehem's rural fringes, worth doing not only to understand the impact of the security barrier, but also to marvel at the landscape: craggy ravines in which houses seem to cling on to the rock, and bare hillsides that slope into chocolate-brown fields full of crops, evoking an inevitably biblical romance. Wherever we go, people amble up to our taxi and explain their predicament. "I used to have a good life," says Jadoun, a shepherd who is now routinely chased from his old grazing-grounds by Israeli soldiers, despite living and working on the Palestinian side of the wall. "I felt free. But now, I feel ... caged. And it makes no sense. I am outside their wall. Even so, I am too close. Why?"

At the summit of one hill, there is a huge house, all courtyards, arches and electronic gates, that somehow manages to combine Middle Eastern architecture with the showy grandeur of opulent European holiday homes. It was once the home of a Palestinian man who worked at the Italian consulate and commuted each day to Jerusalem. Israeli restrictions eventually forced him to relocate, and now the house lies empty and padlocked, its high-ceilinged rooms full of twittering birds.

Like all the buildings that surround it, it's apparently under threat of Israeli confiscation. And I ask our guides: when it is eventually wrenched from one territory to another, what will happen to it? "Lalhadem," one of them spits. It means "For demolition".

Beyond the Israeli checkpoints, in the Jewish settlements that ring Bethlehem's northern frontier, you encounter a completely different reality. Har Homa (Hebrew for "mountain of the wall", though not that wall) is five minutes away, sitting in territory seized by Israel after the six-day war of 1967; here, there are well-stocked supermarkets, pristine children's play areas, and the constant background noise of construction crews. It's home to people priced out of Jerusalem's property market: in the main, young families attracted by three-bedroom apartments that sell for around £100,000, and government programmes offering financial assistance. Watching young mothers push their prams up its steep streets, it's easy to forget that in March 1997, the initial plans for Har Homa were condemned by a UN resolution. It didn't count for much: five days later bulldozers began clearing the place the Palestinians called "green mountain", and in 2004, the settlers' future was underwritten by George Bush's support for Israel's claim to the land, on account of "changed realities on the ground".

Facing towards Bethlehem, over the road from a clutch of cranes, is the workplace of 45-year-old Moshav Orot, an estate agent who handles the sale of Har Homa's newest apartments, part of a building drive that will see its population double. "This is part of Jerusalem," he tells me. "It's not an occupation place. It's in Israel." One word, which I unthinkingly use at the outset of our conversation, causes him particular irritation. "We are near Bethlehem, yes," he says, "but this is not a settlement.

"We want to live securely, like you do in England," he says. "We want peace. And you have to understand that the barrier is there for safety. The whole world is making a lot of noise about it. But since it was built, things are more quiet." I wonder how he feels about the Palestinian land that the building of the wall - and, indeed, the expanding settlements - has so imperilled. "I can't answer this question," he says, "because I don't know what has happened to buildings on that kind of land, if they were on that land at all."

Underlying just about everything he says - not least, his contention that even if the pre-1967 borders were restored, the Palestinians would still be set on "throwing Israel into the sea" - is the belief that on the other side of the barrier lurks unimaginable trouble. Yet Bethlehem, even as the diggers churn up the streets and the wall casts its long shadow, remains surprisingly tranquil. Within its cafes, markets and squares, it remains, in the words of an Open Bethlehem document, "a bastion of an open, diverse Middle East... placed at the point where East and West, Christianity and Islam, co-exist in harmony."

The night we leave, however, there comes an incident that fractures the atmosphere. As we discover while queuing at a checkpoint, Palestinian gunmen have carried out two drive-by shootings - one in Eli, a Jewish settlement north of Jerusalem, the other at Gush Etzion, eight miles from Bethlehem - leaving three Israelis dead. By way of retaliation, settlers are reportedly pulling Palestinians from their cars and beating them up.

Not for the first time, another of Ariel Sharon's pronouncements takes on a bitter irony. In 2003, echoing the American poet Robert Frost, he claimed that "good fences make good neighbours". Tonight, I'm not sure even the soldiers would agree.