Languishing in Isolation

Imad Masalmeh dozes in the doorway of his fruit and vegetable store in Bethlehem’s wholesale market. It is noon. On a normal August day, you would have to elbow your way through a crush of Palestinian mothers, prodding for ripeness, bargaining over price, lugging home plastic baskets of grapes, bananas and eggplants, mint and parsley, all the fruits of the earth and the tree.

Today, the market is deserted. Masalmeh, who supports an extended family of 22 children, parents, brothers and sisters, opens his cash box to reveal a few coins, perhaps 100 Israeli shekels, or $30. “Usually,” he says, “I would have sold 3,000 shekels’ worth of produce by this time.”

He hauls out a box of bruised apples and pears that are starting to rot. “I take these home for the family,” he says. The store is well-stocked, much of it imported from Israel. It is not that there is no food in town. People just don’t have the money to buy more than the basics — tomatoes, onions, potatoes.

One month after two Palestinian suicide bombers killed 14 Israeli civilians in a Jerusalem market, Bethlehem is the only West Bank town still cut off from both Israel and its neighboring Arab communities. David Bar-Illan, an Israeli government spokesman, says: “We have reports from our security services that possible terrorist operations are being planned by individuals in Bethlehem. As long as those reports remain valid, the closure on Bethlehem will continue.”

The biblical city of David and Ruth, Jesus and Mary, which has been under Palestinian self-rule for nearly two years, languishes in its isolation, idle, resentful and totally unconvinced by Israel’s security argument.

“This is a ghost town,” says Mayor Hanna Nasser, waving from his office over an empty Manger Square. “Everything is frozen. The people are very close to losing hope. The prime minister of Israel is killing the spirit of the peace process.”

Nasser estimates the loss of income from tourism, olive wood, mother-of-pearl and textile factories, farms and outside jobs in the first month of the siege at $7 million. About 80 percent of the town’s 35,000 residents, he says, are unemployed. “Nobody’s working. Day laborers can’t get to Israel, and even local factories are having to close because their raw materials are not being cleared from Israeli ports.”

Khalid Bandak, manager of the 50-room Grand Hotel, hosts not a single guest. Three groups of Christian pilgrims, from Europe and Asia, have canceled at the last minute. A busload of 32 Koreans was turned back at an Israeli checkpoint on the road from Jerusalem, five miles to the north. They were booked for three nights. Two Slovakian groups, totaling about 70, which planned to use Bethlehem as a base for 14 days, had second thoughts.

“We have had to lay off 12 workers, most of our staff,” Bandak says. “We can’t pay them, because we have no money coming in. We’ve lost at least $45,000. Under Israeli occupation, at least we had free movement.”

Just as people are not starving in Bethlehem, they are not dying for want of medicines. Israeli Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu ordered that foodstuffs and medical supplies should be allowed through the blockade. But people are suffering the kind of cliffhangers that, sooner or later, will lead to tragedy.

Mohammed Manasreh’s 85-year-old mother lives in a village outside Bethlehem. Because of a chronic heart condition, she needs oxygen. Every three days, Mohammed has to replace the cylinder. Mohammed lives in Bethlehem, his mother under Palestinian civil administration but Israeli security control. To get there, he has to drive through back roads and hope that the Israelis don’t catch him. So far, he’s been lucky.

The West Bank medical services are interdependent. Bethlehem’s King Hussein hospital has a cancer unit. But patients needing intensive care are sent 16 miles to the cardiac, kidney and neurosurgery departments in Ramallah, on the other side of Jerusalem. One night, it took the Bethlehem hospital’s only ambulance more than two hours to ferry a 43-year-old man in a coma to Ramallah for emergency dialysis.

Bethlehem wanted the Oslo peace process to succeed. Under its former mayor, Elias Freij, it avoided confrontation. To flourish, it needs open borders and international confidence. Yasser Arafat’s Palestinian Authority pinned its hopes on the millennium, “Bethlehem 2000,” when record numbers of pilgrims were expected to visit Jesus’ birthplace.

Now, disenchantment is setting in. Every conspiracy theory has its takers. “The siege of Bethlehem has nothing to do with security,” says Salah Tamari, who represents the town in the Palestinian parliament and accuses Israel of plotting an alternative Bethlehem on the contentious Har Homa construction site between Jerusalem and Bethlehem.

“The Israelis are implementing a premeditated plan to strangle the Palestinian economy. Isolating Bethlehem means destroying a major source of income for our people.”

True or false, this, at least, begins to sound like a self-fulfilling prophecy.

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