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Beit Jala: Project renewal?



The magnificent Jacir Palace Intercontinental is being restored to its former glory as the first five-star Palestinian hotel. Its carved, stone fa ade has been rid of battle scars. Its extensive gardens have been pruned, its rooms renovated and its damaged or stolen equipment replaced.

Funded mainly by private Palestinian investors from abroad, the 100-year-old palace-turned-hotel was meant to become the "calling card" of the Palestinian tourism industry.

But shortly after the grand hotel's official opening in 2000, the intifada broke out, putting a halt to the grand plan. Instead of becoming a hallmark of coexistence and affluence, the hotel became a backdrop for gun battles and sometimes a stage for them: In October 2001, IDF soldiers took over the 240-room hotel for 10 days to use it as a military base. Then, following waves of Palestinian terrorist attacks against Israeli civilians throughout 2002 and 2003 some of which were committed by bombers from Beit Jala, Bethlehem and Beit Sahur the IDF entered the area numerous times.

Those days are over now, say the war-weary locals.

"The Palestinian people are tired," says 31-year-old Bassam Attallah, a Muslim security guard at the hotel.

Up the hill lies the town of Beit Jala, one of the main Palestinian centers of Christianity. About 70 percent of the community are Orthodox Christians, 20% Catholic and the rest Muslim.

Famous for its pork, olive oil, apricots and stone masonry, the once quiet Beit Jala became notorious for sniper-fire aimed at the Jewish neighborhood of Gilo in Jerusalem across the valley. Israel retaliated with artillery, and the nightly battles were televised worldwide. With the help of the Italian government, all the damaged and destroyed buildings of Beit Jala were repaired or rebuilt. The only remains of the fighting are small stone signs dedicated to the Italian donation.
But looks can be deceiving. Behind the "face lift" lies poverty and trauma. The hotel is closed. The Bethlehem governorate has been physically and economically isolated.

Before the intifada, some locals worked in Israel, while others made their living from the tourist industry selling olive-wood and mother-of-pearl knick-knacks, driving visitors to holy Christian sites or waiting on tables at hotels and restaurants. The violence put an end to all that. Access to the area was cut off, entry permission to Israel was severely limited and tourists were scared away.

Visitors to the area must now pass checkpoint 300 a full-fledged military complex with cement blocks, steel towers and armed soldiers.

"It gives pilgrims a bad feeling," says Antoinette Atwan, a Catholic Beit Jala resident. "When they return home they recommend against visiting this country."

"Yet tourism is essential to our livelihood," insists Beit Jala Mayor Raji Zeidan.

AROUND THE complex and past the Jacir Palace there is a traffic light that is out of order. A left turn leads to Bethlehem's Manger Square, believed to be the place of Jesus's birth. A right turn leads to Beit Jala's main strip: a wide road named after Pope Paul VI which first dips down and then rolls up a hill toward the municipality. From this hill, the town of Beit Jala is in full view.

Ancient Orthodox and Catholic churches rise above stone manors decorating the Ras Jala mountain one of the highest in the Judean Hills.

Like the hotel at first glance, the town is attractive and appears to be functioning normally. The buildings have been repaired, new streets have been paved, the sidewalks are clean. A family park with a duck pond has been built.

On closer inspection, however, the town is lifeless. Souvenir shops lining the main street are all closed. So is the inn. The only signs of life are from passing cars and in the barbershop.

Another right turn reveals a totally different view. A tall grey cement wall looms in the distance along the northern edge of the town. This is the famous security fence constructed to prevent suicide bombers from entering Israel.

Past the refugee camp in the northern edge of the town, 65-year-old Nahle Atwan, his wife, his sister Antoinette, his two sons and their families yell over the din as Israeli dump trucks and bulldozers prepare a wide strip of land a few meters from their backyard.

Beyond the dump trucks are the last six and a half dunams of Atwan's land.

He has already lost 13 dunams near Checkpoint 300, he says, and three and a half on the edge of Gilo. The security fence, he adds, will also mean the end to the family's year-round supply of olives and olive oil.

Despite their proximity to the fence, a building occupied by the Israeli military and the refugee camp, the family says they will not move.

"We don't have anywhere to go," explains Atwan. "I have no more land to build on."

His 27-year-old daughter-in-law, Manal, lives on the bottom floor of the building with her husband and three children. She prays that the fence will stop short of blocking sun and air from their house. The children, she says, have already been through enough over the past few years.

"The [Israeli] helicopters used to hover over our house and shoot into the refugee camp," says Manal, whose six-year-old twins are in therapy three times a week due to trauma.

"They began wetting their pants and having problems in school after soldiers searched our house."

Mayor Zeidan says the deteriorating economic situation, coupled with the encroaching fence and subsequent land confiscation, are the town's biggest problems.

"We have a great percentage of poverty and a high rate of unemployment," says Zeidan, who studied engineering in Nebraska. "Now the wall is cutting us off from the only directions we can expand to."

The town is bordered by Doha in the south and Bethlehem in the east. The fence, if and when completed in the north and west, will surround the town. At the moment there is a court injunction preventing the completion of parts of it.

According to Zeidan, the town's 15th mayor, Israel has already taken part of Beit Jala land. The town was once 14,500 dunams, he says, about 10,000 of which was agricultural. Gilo was built in the 1970s on 3,500 dunams of land beyond the 1948 armistice line. Har Gilo, once a military outpost and now a settlement, took another 255. Highway 60 has taken a bit more. The fence, he says, will cut off the town from almost all the rest.

He, like others in the town, ask why the fence is being built so close to their homes.

"If they are going to build it, why don't they build it nearer to Gilo?" asks 70-year-old Antoinette, before answering her own question: "They just want our land," she concludes.

Antoinette, a piano teacher, used to give lessons to Jewish Israelis from Jerusalem; but, since the intifada, they have stopped coming.

Antoinette says that even if the army were to offer her money for the land beyond the fence, she and her brother could not take it without risking their lives. Doing so, she says, would mean giving Israel legitimacy over the land and making Palestine smaller.

Not so for the residents of Bir Una, a northwest Beit Jalan suburb located on the same mountain range as Gilo. This is because Israel annexed it and made it part of Jerusalem. Most of its residents have opted to hold on to Jerusalem identity cards, because having one makes it easier to get work.

Yet this simultaneously puts them at a disadvantage. Though they were required to pay arnona (municipal taxes in Israel) even before being granted their IDs, the only service they have been receiving from Jerusalem is water. Not only do they pay to pave their own roads, but they have to carry their own garbage to the bottom of the hill, since Beit Jala garbage collectors are forbidden from entering the suburb as it falls under Jerusalem jurisdiction. Nor do they have a sewage system, though the rest of Beit Jala does.

The security fence has made life in Bir Una even more complicated. Mervat Abu Qube, a construction worker who raises pigs, used to park his car in Gilo and walk four minutes to his house. The 43-year-old father-of-three has a Jerusalem ID card which once allowed him and his family to easily enter the Israeli capital. But now, he says, the fence is up and the path is blocked. An imposing guard tower stands just above his home, from which soldiers often call out warnings to his children not to come too close, he says.

The children of Bir Una cannot attend school or receive medical services without stopping at Checkpoint 300, often for a long wait. Though their ID cards say they live in Jerusalem, the fence cuts them off from the city and its services. Many Palestinians, from Beit Jala and elsewhere, however, are hopeful that their plight will be alleviated after the PA elections on January 9.

Bajajlis, as they call themselves, once depended on tourists, local factories, and work in Israel for their livelihood. Now that those are gone or closed or inaccessible, they are pinning their hopes for their future on Mahmoud Abbas (Abu Mazen), the leading candidate for chairman in the coming Palestinian election.

Back in the Jacir Palace hotel, another of its guards, Ibrahimi, says he wishes for Israeli tourists and peace: "If they come I'll get $600 a month." He will vote for Abbas because, like many Palestinians, he believes that the Israelis and the Americans want Abbas, so they will be willing to negotiate with him.

But, he adds, "If the situation doesn't improve after the elections there will be another intifada in two, three, four years. And it will be fiercer."



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