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Bypassing Bethlehem’s Eastern Reaches

Nate Wright

October 7, 2008


In late August, Israel completed refurbishment of the road dipping down from
the Jerusalem-area settlement of Har Homa to the bloc of smaller settlements
southeast of Bethlehem. The new bypass, meant to speed up the commutes of
settlers to their jobs and schools in Israel, has opened another front in
the battle over the extent of Israel's settlement project in the West Bank.
It may also have far-reaching consequences for the socio-economic future of
Palestinians in the Bethlehem area.

Nate Wright explores the road's implications in "Bypassing Bethlehem's
Eastern Reaches," now in Middle East Report Online:

For more on the Palestinian experience of travel on West Bank roads, see Julie Peteet, “Stealing Time,” Middle East Report 248 (Summer 2008).

For background on the wall in the West Bank, see Catherine Cook, “Final Status in the Shape of a Wall,” Middle East Report Online, September 3, 2003.

The town of Bayt Sahour spills down the hills to the east of Bethlehem, spreading out along ridges and valleys that mark the beginning of the long descent to the Dead Sea. Up the slopes the roads carve out twisting rivers of dirt and asphalt, wending their way through clusters of soft brown stone houses, but across the ridges they run straight and smooth. 

At the end of one of these roads lies a hill called ‘Ush Ghurab, known to Israelis as Shdema, the name of the military base that sat on the summit until 2006. Today there are only a few hollowed-out buildings, thick concrete blocks with gaping windows and doorways set low behind earthen walls, to remind visitors of the previous occupants. On the northern slope, small pillboxes stare out vacantly over Bayt Sahour and Bethlehem.

Here, on the north face of ‘Ush Ghurab, local Palestinians have a development project underway. A restaurant, a climbing tower, a football field and a park line up on successive terraces down the hillside. The municipal government of Bayt Sahour plans to erect a hospital and a sports center as well. But the land is still classified as Area C, as the 1993 Oslo agreement called those regions of the occupied Palestinian territories that were to remain under direct Israeli military control pending a comprehensive peace between Israel and the Palestinian Authority (PA). So the municipality must apply to the Israeli Civil Administration, the military government in control of most of the West Bank, for permission to build on the site. The mayor of Bayt Sahour, Hani al-Hayek, is convinced that the plans will eventually be approved. 

But the stakes were raised on May 15 when a group of Israeli settlers staged a demonstration on the hilltop to correspond with President George W. Bush’s visit to Israel on the day when the Jewish state celebrates its independence. The settlers are determined to prevent any further Palestinian construction in the ‘Ush Ghurab area, and Knesset members and politicians in nearby settlements have rallied to their cause. In July the settlers formed the Committee for a Jewish Shdema. 

If peopled by Palestinians, the Committee claims, the hilltop location will pose a threat to traffic on Bypass Road 356, opened in late August 2007 after its predecessor route was closed by Israel with the outbreak of the fall 2000 intifada. Also known as the Lieberman or Za‘tara road, the expanded 356 dips down from Har Homa, a settlement south of Jerusalem, to the settlements of Tekoa, Nokdim and Kfar Eldad lying to the south of the Bethlehem conurbation. Like similar arteries throughout the West Bank, the bypass is intended to speed up settlers’ commutes to jobs and schools inside Israel. Housing prices in Tekoa, Nokdim and Kfar Eldad have risen since the road opened, breathing new life into the settlers’ determination that this bloc of colonies will be among the areas that Israel retains should it withdraw from the West Bank. Along its route, Bypass Road 356 also claims a new ribbon of territory for the Israeli army to patrol, confiscating land from Palestinian villages and effectively demarcating the city limits of Bethlehem’s eastern suburb Bayt Sahour.

“We Will Fight”

The importance of ‘Ush Ghurab is found precisely in the question of where the bloc of Tekoa, Nokdim and Kfar Eldad lies in Israeli political and military calculations. 

To the west of Bethlehem is Gush Etzion, a populous constellation of Jewish colonies long since connected to Jerusalem by bypass roads and slated to be enclosed behind the separation wall that Israel is building in the West Bank. These settlements act as bedroom communities for Jerusalem and, because of this relationship, Israelis have long considered them de facto a part of Israel -- ordinary, if religiously conservative towns that will sit inside Israel’s final borders should a peace agreement be reached or Israel declare its own borders unilaterally by means of the separation wall. 

Settlements and Bypass Roads in the Bethlehem Area (Courtesy of the Applied Research Institute-Jerusalem) [click to view large version of map in PDF]

Tekoa, Nokdim and Kfar Eldad, on the other hand, lie considerably to the east of Gush Etzion and off the map of the Israeli consensus regarding settlements. Now the opening of Bypass Road 356 has eased the task of settlers there who want to incorporate what they call “eastern Gush Etzion” into that consensus. In 2000, there was a series of dirt roads with paved segments along the path of the refurbished 356, but the trip to Jerusalem could take up to three quarters of an hour. While the new highway was under construction, the journey was of similar length, as settlement residents drove first to “western” Gush Etzion and then up to Jerusalem. Now they have a straight shot into the city, reducing their travel time to 15 minutes and turning these formerly isolated outposts into potential Jerusalem suburbs in their own right. In the new road, settlers in “western” Gush Etzion have an alternate, less traveled route to work and school in Israel proper. And “eastern Gush Etzion” is getting noticed: On July 30, the Israeli daily Ha’aretz reported a 70 percent increase in the prices of plots of land there and the arrival of 20 new families to Kfar Eldad. 

But the settlers are not satisfied, because as the bypass road curves along the valleys east of Bethlehem, it passes directly beneath ‘Ush Ghurab. According to Nadia Matar, a leading figure on the Committee for a Jewish Shdema, and military sources who continue to oppose the Israeli withdrawal from the hilltop, the road is now exposed to small arms fire from Palestinian militants because of the Bayt Sahour municipality’s project. Matar explains that activists and moderates within the settler movement, meaning those who want “eastern Gush Etzion” to be on the “Israeli” side of the wall and those who do not, have joined forces in the name of security. “We all agree we will fight,” she says.

After the initial settler demonstration in May, an assortment of Palestinians and international volunteers themselves took over ‘Ush Ghurab and painted over the settlers’ graffiti. The settlers responded in kind, and between May and July, the two sides waged a symbolic war on concrete. As the confrontations heated up near the end of July, some Palestinians worried that the Israeli army might use the pretext of the threat of violence to close off the whole area permanently. Attendance had dropped at the park on the northern slope.

As al-Hayek, the mayor of Bayt Sahour, argued: “If people don’t come to ‘Ush Ghurab, we lose ‘Ush Ghurab. This is the main thing. ‘Ush Ghurab is alive with our people. If there are no people then it is killed. We kill this location.” He has called off the confrontations, citing his assurance that the development project will proceed, and the Palestinian and international activists have backed down for the time being.

But many wonder if the mayor really has information others do not. And what is to stop the settlers from pressing their case, by various methods, in the meantime? “Even if I were to receive guarantees from the Israeli administration,” says George Rishmawi of the Palestinian Center for Rapprochement, “I wouldn’t trust them.”

“Every settlement started like that,” Rishmawi continues. “Settlers want this place, they come, they camp, they leave, they come again, they put down tents, and then the tents become little mobile homes. And if they camp there, the army is forced to go and protect them and stay there.” It appears that, though the military base is gone, ‘Ush Ghurab has become a battleground where the future extent of the Israeli settlement project will be contested.

Of Roads and Routes

Like many of the bypasses built for settlers in the West Bank, Road 356 is not entirely shut off to Palestinian traffic. Portions of the road are technically open to cars and trucks bearing green PA license plates, but towers, checkpoints and patrolling jeeps -- all there to protect the settlers -- can make Palestinian travel tenuous at best while settler traffic speeds along. But the potential ramifications of Bypass Road 356 far exceed the ease of settler travel or the expansion of a few settlements that it may enable. The increased settler and military traffic along the highway to “eastern Gush Etzion” will dramatically affect the prospects for growth and the larger socio-economic future of the Bethlehem area.

While Bethlehem is certainly not the tiny hamlet sung about in Christmas hymns, it retains many of the features of a small town. Families are out walking the streets on Friday and Saturday nights and a visit to a restaurant almost invariably involves crossing paths with family friends. The two main suburbs, Bayt Jala and Bayt Sahour, each have their own distinct atmospheres and close-knit communities. All three cities are supported and sustained by their relationship with surrounding villages. 

As Bethlehem is literally walled off to the north and soon will be to the west, any future expansion can only occur on the eastern slopes -- and the new access road has already jeopardized the prospects. Many trees have been razed along the route. As with ‘Ush Ghurab, much of the land of the eastern slopes remains classified as Area C, requiring Israeli permission to build. Historically, restrictions on construction have forced young men out of villages or paralyzed family development in a society where men are expected to build a home before getting married. As a result, most of the population growth in Bethlehem will have to be accommodated in the limited areas under PA control: the towns themselves and a few nearby villages. “It goes up,” says Suhail Khalilieh of the Applied Research Institute-Jerusalem. “That’s the future building trend. We’re going to see more and more high buildings in the future in the Bethlehem region.” Where the PA has authority, agricultural land will be converted for urban use. Everywhere else will simply stagnate.

‘Ush Ghurab is also home to one of three water pumping stations in the Bethlehem area, where water in the summer can be so scarce that neighborhoods must alternate access on different days. More than half of the water supply in Bethlehem comes from the Herodion well network southeast of town, directly in the path of the bypass road. It is pumped up the hills and into homes by the three stations. At the moment, the pumping station at ‘Ush Ghurab, which serves the entire Bayt Sahour area, is the only fully functioning facility. If a settlement is established on the hilltop, the station will become nearly inaccessible to Palestinian engineers looking to fix leaks and perform routine maintenance, as it will become a closed security zone. Where settlers live in close proximity to Palestinian neighborhoods, as in Hebron, permits for making such repairs take ages to get. In the meantime, water or sewage may leak out onto the streets -- or, in Bayt Sahour’s case, into the valley.

More worrisome, according to Khalilieh, is that the new road will eventually become the main road for travel between Bethlehem and Hebron. At the moment, Palestinians use Road 60, which incidentally also connects the “western” Gush Etzion bloc with Jerusalem and the settlements around Hebron to the south. Road 60 carries both passenger cars and commercial trucks to and from Hebron, one of the West Bank’s most robust economic centers. Because it serves Israeli settlers as well, though, it is a source of continual difficulty for Palestinian freedom of movement. Temporary “flying” checkpoints, at which Palestinian vehicles are stopped and inspected at random spots along the road, are common. During times of increased tension, Palestinian travel along the road becomes all but impossible, with many electing to cancel planned trips altogether. Many young Palestinians in Bethlehem who came of age during the second intifada have never been to Hebron due to the road’s uncertainty.

If Palestinian traffic is shifted to the new eastern road, the tension between Israel’s commitments to withdrawal and its ongoing management of the Palestinian territories will be thrown into stark relief. The move could be seen as a step toward future removal of Tekoa, Nokdim and Kfar Eldad (as well as smaller colonies further south). “Eastern Gush Etzion” evacuated, Israel could consolidate its control of the “western” part of the bloc by routing Palestinian traffic to Road 356, where it would (in theory) be unimpeded by an Israeli military presence. But such withdrawal is unlikely without a comprehensive peace deal. In the absence of such a deal, Israel prefers to maintain its control of Palestinian territory, even in areas where traffic moves only between Palestinian cities. Also, the road runs parallel to hills and valleys that Israel has long marked off as state land, a nature zone in which Palestinian construction is forbidden, so it is hard to imagine the Israeli military giving up its control of this eastern corridor unless it is part of meaningful political negotiations. While withdrawal awaits a political solution, Israeli settlers and local military commanders develop close relationships, and changes like the rise in settler traffic along the road become de facto a part of military and political calculations.

In the meantime, the eastern road will begin to look like its western counterpart. As the road becomes populated with flying checkpoints, villagers along the route will face new problems getting to market or paying visits in Bethlehem. Yet, as permits for home construction become more and more difficult to acquire and family members are forced to move into the city, they will rely even more heavily on such access. As agricultural land disappears or is rendered inaccessible, Bethlehem will depend more on imports from stable suppliers such as Israel. At the same time that Bethlehem’s eastern area becomes necessary for population growth, it will become increasingly shut down to Palestinian expansion.

Khalilieh’s prediction appears to have some merit. In the Palestinian village of al-Nu‘man, where the road leaves the Israeli settlement of Har Homa in the north to begin its journey south, Israel is constructing a produce terminal. This may be an indication of the road’s future role in the transportation network of the West Bank. Planned to coincide with the “ring road,” an extensive bypass that would connect northern and southern West Bank traffic without touching Jerusalem, the produce terminal could serve the southern West Bank agricultural industry, further shifting Palestinian traffic away from the old Bethlehem-Hebron road.

Walled In, and Out

Trapped between Har Homa on one side, and the separation wall and access road on the other, al-Nu‘man is set in an inconvenient location for Israeli plans -- an inconvenience that has been passed on to the villagers themselves. They can only leave their village through a single checkpoint and, as Israeli soldiers on duty there will confirm, only village residents are allowed to enter. 

Efrat Ben Ze’ev, an Israeli activist with Ta‘ayush, a Jewish-Arab peace group, has worked with the residents of al-Nu‘man since a military convoy showed up one night in 2003 to warn them they would be cut off from Bethlehem and Jerusalem. She says that the problems started long before the road. “It began in the 1990s when the [Jerusalem] municipality suddenly realized that these people -- their land has been annexed [to Jerusalem], but they have not been annexed.” Demolition orders were issued and building construction in the village stopped. About 50 men “have been waiting to get married and they cannot build and they cannot live with their brides in the same rooms as their families,” she says. “It’s a very pastoral place, but it’s overcrowded in terms of the way people are living inside the houses.”

Twice, in 2004 and 2007, the villagers made an appeal to Israel’s High Court of Justice: Either consider al-Nu‘man to be within the West Bank and reroute the wall so that the residents have access to Palestinian cities, or provide them with Jerusalem identification cards so that they can legally reside on their land. In 2004, the court agreed to establish a committee for resolving the villagers’ legal status, but it was never formed. Responding to the second petition, the court ruled that each al-Nu‘man resident must apply individually for a Jerusalem ID. This bureaucratic procedure will introduce ample opportunity for foot-dragging by the state, likely preventing many of the residents from gaining permission to live in their homes.

Al-Nu‘man is an exceptional case. Still, the village’s experience illustrates what can happen when strips of territory important to Israel cut through village land, increasing Israel’s military presence through the proliferation of watchtowers, checkpoints and jeeps. It is not inconceivable that similar fates await other Bethlehem-area villages if the “eastern Gush Etzion” project makes progress.

The Past and Potential of ‘Ush Ghurab

From the hilltop at ‘Ush Ghurab the desert unfolds in shades of brown. Heavy rolling crests of earth that rise and fall into each other are dotted with tiny splashes of green. To the north and west, the towers of Bethlehem’s churches and mosques poke the sky. Small villages pepper nearby summits to the south and west. In August, the park on the northern slope is packed early for a Friday evening festival hosted by PAIDIA, a US-based NGO involved in the hill’s development. Children are playing ring-toss and families are chatting in small gazebos.

Most are not interested in the history of the place. For many it is their first visit. But the past lives on in this park, the terrace walls of one level constructed out of the pre-fabricated concrete blocks of the old military base. The Israelis also inherited the location, used before by the militaries of Jordan, Britain and the Ottoman Empire. Now Bayt Sahour has climbed up for the ride. The view is magnificent; the vantage point strategic. When Bethlehem was put under siege in 2002, tanks drove up from this base through Bayt Sahour and into Bethlehem. It served as a temporary detention center during the street fights of the second intifada. But Bayt Sahour was relatively quiet for the Israeli military; perhaps this is why the base was abandoned.

Wisam Kutom shares the mayor’s optimism that the park’s plans will go forward. As general director of Children of Palestine, the group holding the blueprints for a large sports complex on the site, Kutom is deeply involved in the preparations. Like the mayor, he believes the Israeli Civil Administration would not have given up the site if there were plans to return. But, he warns, the settlers are “trying to get on the nerves of the people and trying to push the people to clash with the settlers and this is where things might get messy with the Civil Administration.” 

Certainly, the settlers have recruited allies. The Lieberman after whom Bypass Road 356 is known is Avigdor Lieberman, a Nokdim resident and member of Knesset who, as head of the far-right Yisrael Beiteinu party, served briefly as minister of transportation under ex-Prime Minister Ariel Sharon and then as minister of strategic affairs from October 2006 to January 2008. Nadia Matar makes it clear that the Committee for a Jewish Shdema is busy working behind the scenes with others in the Israeli political and military establishments. She claims they have “many contacts” who are “outraged” at the idea of handing over the site to Palestinians. The Jerusalem Post reported that a Knesset sub-group of the Foreign Affairs and Defense Committee visited ‘Ush Ghurab on August 27 and decided not to recommend the construction of the park. It is hard to say how far the non-recommendation will travel or for whose ears it was intended.

Kutom’s optimism depends on a political solution or a constant political trajectory. Even with the new road and the strengthening of “eastern Gush Etzion,” Israel is universally expected to withdraw from these settlements eventually. They are “bargaining chips,” according to Khalilieh. “The Israelis have pretty much marked the settlements to be included [within the borders of a final Israeli state]. They are the ones that lie behind the segregation wall.” But a political solution is still lost in the dust-obscured horizon. In the meantime, Israel’s military will continue to run the West Bank according to its own imperatives. This means an evacuation of the military base now, but it may also mean a gradual shift of Palestinian life eastward, putting further strain on an area that will already have to accommodate Bethlehem’s population growth. 

Perhaps of greatest concern is that the decisions are being made largely out of the public eye. Though Israeli papers like Ha’aretz have covered the rise in housing prices in Tekoa and Nokdim, and the construction of the park, there has been little coverage of the eastern access road and its potential to reconfigure the spatial parameters of the Bethlehem governorate. “We’re looking to double or triple the population density in the future within the available area for expansion,” Khalilieh says. “If this settlement bloc, the eastern Gush Etzion settlement bloc, continues to exist, it will literally eliminate any future possibility for expansion within the Bethlehem area.”

The sun is setting back in ‘Ush Ghurab that Friday in August. The air is filled with the smell of the flavored tobacco of water pipes. Fireworks bloom over Bethlehem. A young student, Ruba, lived just up the road from the military base all her life. She is happy about the new park. “It just makes people have another idea about this place, because it used to be a place that caused terror and now it’s a place that’s causing them joy, especially the kids,” she says. “For a start, it’s OK. For a start.”

(Nate Wright is a freelance journalist who divides his time between Israel-Palestine and Britain.)

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