O, Embattled Town of Bethlehem

<p>Competing ancient claims to land, religious fervor and the construction of a massive "security" wall make Bethlehem the most contested city on Earth.</p>
December 25, 2007, 7am PST | Michael Dudley
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"Bethlehem and Jerusalem are only six miles apart (ten kilometers), though in the compressed and fractious geography of the region, this places them in different realms. It can take a month for a postcard to go from one city to the other. Bethlehem is in the West Bank, on land taken by Israel during the Six Day War of 1967. It's a Palestinian city; the majority of its 35,000 residents are Muslim. In 1900, more than 90 percent of the city was Christian. Today Bethlehem is only about one-third Christian, and this proportion is steadily shrinking as Christians leave for Europe or the Americas. At least a dozen suicide bombers have come from the city and surrounding district. The truth is that Bethlehem, the "little town" venerated during Christmas, is one of the most contentious places on Earth."

..."The city, at the scrabbly hem of the Judaean desert, is built over several broad, flat-topped hills, stingy with vegetation. The older homes are made of pale yellow stone, wedged along steep, narrow streets. A couple of battered taxis ply the roads, drivers heavy on the horns. At an outdoor stall, lamb meat rotates on a spit, dripping fat. Men sit on plastic chairs and sip from small glasses of thick Arabic coffee. There's an odor of uncollected garbage. As you work your way up the hill, you can see the scope of the wall and chart its ongoing expansion-a gray snake, segmented by cylindrical guard towers, methodically constricting the city."

..."The wall, Palestinians say, suffocates an entire population for the actions of a small minority. They believe it is an Israeli attempt to establish a new national border, sealing onto the Israeli side all the choicest cuts from the land they occupied in 1967-the settlement areas, the scarce water sources, the fertile fields. The city of Bethlehem is being pinched into a seven-square-mile box, surrounded by a barrier on three sides.

As the wall continues to grow, giant digging machines, protected by armed guards, claw into the earth day and night. When completed, it will extend 450 miles (720 kilometers), sometimes dipping as far as 15 miles (24 kilometers) into West Bank territory, claiming 10 percent of Palestinian land for Israeli settlers. The Israeli government says its goal is only to protect Israeli lives, not to redraw the border, and as soon as there's a sweeping shift in Palestinian policy toward Israel, the wall will be destroyed and the confiscated land returned. The Israeli government doesn't even call it a wall. It prefers the term "security fence," and in most places in the West Bank it is indeed a network of electrified chain-link fences and coils of barbed wire. But not in Bethlehem. The wall around much of Bethlehem is taller than the barriers used in Israeli prisons."

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Published on Saturday, December 22, 2007 in National Geographic
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