Benjamin Pogrund (left) Director of Yakar Center for Social Concerns meets Bethlehem Mayor Hanna nasser in Beit Jalla
by Judy Lash Balint www.the medialine.org
March 11, 2003
A handful of Peace Now sympathizers met with officials from the Bethlehem municipality and members of an Arab group monitoring settlement activities earlier today. The meeting took place at the Everest Hotel, high in the Judean hills overlooking the mansions of Beit Jalla, in an attempt to draw attention to the group's objection to Israeli plans to redraw the municipal boundaries of Jerusalem to include Rachel's Tomb.
At present, Jews wishing to pray at Rachel's Tomb are permitted access only by bulletproof bus under the watchful eye of an IDF base across the street from the heavily fortified building.
Israel's intentions to protect the area surrounding Rachel's Tomb are motivated by a history of attacks against Judaism's third holiest site in recent years, and the memory of the destruction of Joseph's Tomb in Shechem (Nablus) and the sixth century Shalom Al Yisrael Synagogue in Jericho during the early days of the current anti-Jewish violence.
But Bethlehem officials and their Peace Now sympathizers view the construction of a wall separating Bethlehem from the religious shrine as further evidence of the expansionist intentions of the Sharon administration and a further effort to isolate Bethlehem.
First to speak at this morning's meeting was Bethlehem mayor, Hanna J. Nasser. Mr. Nasser is a distinguished looking man in his sixties with neatly trimmed goatee, dressed in a black suit and tie and wearing wire rim glasses. In dramatic tones, he told the small group that the proposed Israeli move was "the most dangerous and catastrophic measure to take place vis-ŕ-vis the safety and security of Bethlehem and its people. It's a matter of death or life," he said of the proposed 3 km. long wall that would seal off the holy site from the rest of Bethlehem.
Mayor Nasser claims that 37 homes containing some 500 people would be "put in prison" by the Israeli action. "People will be denied to move from their own homes and will need military permission to move."
A few weeks ago, Israeli Defense Forces Order Number 03/14T was sent to each directly affected Bethlehem resident noting that 4.5 acres of property were "seized for military reasons" from eight residents, including Mayor Nasser. The IDF sent Colonel Jamal Salman, an Israeli Arabic speaking Druze to reassure concerned residents.
"You will be able to come and go from your neighborhood with permits through checkpoints in a perfectly respectable manner," Salman told dozens of residents.
"There will be no evacuation. There will be no changes in your lives initially."
Still, Mayor Nasser can't understand the need for the security measures. "I see all measures as unjustified," he says firmly. "Since 1967 there has not been one single incident against any (Jewish) worshipper," he asserts.
Mayor Nasser has evidently forgotten about the attack by 500 Arab students who marched on Rachel's Tomb on March 20, 1997 to hurl firebombs and stones at the site, and the orchestrated three-pronged attack on December 4, 2000, which brought PA forces within meters of the holy site in the fiercest battle between the PA and Israeli security forces after the onset of the October 2000 hostilities. The December 2000 incident was the culmination of violence at Rachel's Tomb that resulted in the site being closed to Jewish worship for weeks. Can Mayor Nasser be ignorant of the violence at Rachel's Tomb that took place during the terrorist occupation of the nearby Church of the Nativity last year?
No one in the Israeli delegation present at today's meeting challenges the Mayor's assertions.
Then Mayor Nasser gets to the heart of the matter from his point of view: His fear that the impending construction of the separation wall will make life so difficult for the 40 affected families that they will leave the area to be replaced by "Israeli orthodox" who will move in and "build a religious school there."
In conclusion, Nasser tells us that the Europeans, Americans and churches have all been alerted to the situation, and that lawyers have already appealed on their behalf to Israel's High Court, with a deadline of Monday, March 17 to submit documents.
In a slick PowerPoint presentation following the Mayor's remarks, Dr. Jad Issac, director of the Bethlehem based Applied Research Institute-Jerusalem (ARIJ)—a major recipient of EU funds (almost $200,000 in 2000)—makes the case that the wall around Rachel's Tomb is part of a larger effort of Israeli expansionism.
Issac asserts that the boundaries of the Bethlehem district extend to the Dead Sea. Therefore, any Jewish presence in that area is offensive. Issac uses a series of maps replete with inflammatory language to make his point: ‘Bethlehem Under Apartheid,' is the title of one: "Jewish Colonists" referring to the number of Jews living in the area, is another. "This is the first project in the occupied territories to create a ghetto," he concludes.
Moni, the Peace Now director, invites response from the Israelis who have come along. In a news release, PN had announced that the group would include MK Yuli Tamir, Hebrew University mathematics Prof. Uriel Simon and Rabbi Mickey Rosen of Jerusalem's Yakar synagogue. Rosen fails to show, sending Benjamin Pogrund, director of Yakar's Center for Social Concern in his place. In addition, Peace Now activist Prof. Dan Jacobsen is present.
Moni makes a point of telling me that other rabbis have spoken out on the issue. He mentions Jerusalem Rabbi Moshe Halbertal and Shmuel Reiner of Maale Gilboa by name.
Yuli Tamir is the first Israeli to react. Tamir had been part of the Israeli negotiating team at the Sharm el Sheikh talks in 2000. Today, she thanked the Arab presenters for providing "the facts that we'll need when we set out to object to this plan." Tamir termed the Israeli plan " unjust and inhumane." "It's an unjustified use of the IDF for political reasons."
Prof. Dan Jacobsen asserted that Israel is "out of sync with the rest of the world," which is tearing down walls, not putting them up. Picking up on Nasser's language, Jacobsen told the Arabs across the table, "It's disastrous from any point of view." Jacobsen pledged to use the court of public opinion to combat the plan.
For Prof. Uriel Simon, a knitted kipa wearing math professor, the issue is "the horrible combination of religion and military force." Simon believes that religions flourish when they're weak, "they start to decline when they're connected with military power." Simon decried the use of religion as a cause of suffering to others. "Excellent!" exclaimed Mayor Nasser.
Asked whether the Joseph's Tomb experience might have contributed to the Israeli decision to protect Rachel's Tomb. Nasser replied that "it shouldn't have happened." But then he reiterated his revisionist views. "We have proven through history that we have respected religious sites," he replied.
Answering for the Jews, Prof. Simon replied, "it's not beneficial to make a balance of claims. We have good reason to be afraid, but we should never do more than needed for security."
In their news release, Peace Now spokesmen had announced their intent to go through the Bethlehem checkpoint to view the situation at Rachel's Tomb after the news conference in Beit Jalla. But given the paltry turnout of journalists and Peace Now-niks, and the prospect of being turned back at the checkpoint, the idea was nixed in favor of a trip to inspect another Jerusalem spot that draws the ire of Peace Now: Ras el Amud or Maale Hazeitim—the new Jewish neighborhood just to the south of the ancient Mt of Olives cemetery.