It is extremely offensive to the people of Bethlehem when foreign visitors come through the wall and fail to notice that they have left Israel. After all its not as if the wall is a particularly unnoticeable boundary – it consists of 30ft of solid concrete with sporadic gun towers and steel gates! Its not hard to miss people.
But why am I being so uptight about people making this seemingly innocent mistake? Well, for several reasons;
1) Bethlehem city and its inhabitants have suffered greatly under the Israeli regime. In 1967 Bethlehem – which was up until that point in time under the administration of Jordan – was occupied by the Israeli military. It remained under this direct colonial control until the creation of the Palestinian authority in the 1990's, despite numerous UN resolutions declaring the occupation illegal.
2) Bethlehem city has suffered greatly from a series of Israeli invasions in the period of time since it was handed over to the Palestinian authority. During this period, Bethlehem has been subject to numerous and often violent incursions by Israeli troops. The largest of which was when a few dozen Palestinian militants were placed under siege in the famous Church of the Nativity.
3) Bethlehem has had vast quantities of land illegally confiscated for settler and military use. Using an array of laws compiled from the British, Jordanian and Ottoman occupations – coupled with the arbitrary use of 'military orders' – The Israelis have succeeded in confiscating over 50% of the land in the Palestinian West Bank. In the Bethlehem area alone, no less than 11 illegal settlements have been installed – in effect, completely surrounding the city.
4) The construction of the apartheid wall is currently in the process of devastating the city by cutting it off from the outside world. As opposed to being constructed along the internationally recognized border with Israel (which would be the logical route of the wall if the argument that it is for security were true) the wall runs along the edge of the urban areas deep inside Bethlehem's territory. (See picture's in article's below) This is to ensure that the maximum possible amount of land can be confiscated and illegally settled. The result is that Bethlehem is being turned into an urban ghetto so as to not disrupt Tel Aviv's plans for a greater Israel.
5) Bethlehem shelters a large population of refugees from the original round of ethnic cleansing which took place with the founding of Israel in 1947-8. Having been denied their internationally recognized right of return (according to UN resolution 194 refugees 'must be permitted to return') these people – and their decedents – live in poverty stricken refugee camps which are heavily over-crowed.
6) Final reason, Its bloody annoying! The people of this city have suffered a great deal from the policies of the Israeli colonial regime whilst the world fails to notice. When Westerners walk around Bethlehem saying 'oh isn’t this a lovely part of Israel' it only serves to highlight how little the outside world are aware of this area and subsequently it adds insult to injury.
I'm not one for nationalism myself, I believe the people of all nations are essentially all the same – just people – but the people of this suffering city are entitled to their identity and they unanimously agree that they are Palestinians. When visiting or writing about Bethlehem, please try to be sensitive to the fact that many of the things associated with the word 'Israel' have caused these people almost permanent suffering since 1947. The very least we can offer them in terms of respect is to at least addressing these people with the name of their enemy.