O divided little town of Bethlehem

THOUSANDS of pilgrims are expected to descend on Bethlehem today, but most of them probably won't venture far beyond the lights of Manger Square.

However, if they went just a few streets away, they would see Palestinians still trying to get used to a towering wall choking their town.

Some residents are finding ways to adapt. Claire Anastas lives in a three-storey house that is ringed on three sides by Israel's separation barrier, a grey cement wall that climbs to just below her roof.

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The wall deprived her family of their livelihood, a car repair business that went under because customers could no longer get there. Now Ms Anastas, 39, is using the wall to make money.

Since October, she's been selling Bethlehem's traditional olive wood carvings on the internet, and one of her most popular items is a nativity scene with a wall running through it. It's her design, and the wall is removable – just in case people want a more traditional display.

She had sold 90 nativity-with-wall scenes so far, out of 300 in stock. "This symbolises the situation, and so they demand it," she said of her customers.

The wall outside her house went up in 2003. It's part of a barrier of cement slabs and fences that is to run the length of the West Bank, and is two-thirds complete.

Israel says it is meant to keep out Palestinian attackers, but the barrier also slices off 10 per cent of the West Bank in what Palestinians call a land grab. The barrier not only cuts off Bethlehem from nearby Jerusalem, it also meanders through Bethlehem, separating Rachel's Tomb, a site revered by Jews, from the rest of the city.

Several businesses in Ms Anastas' part of town have been forced to close because of the wall. But one of her neighbours, John Hazboun, a restaurateur, saw an opportunity. One day, he brought a wooden ladder, two pots of paint and a brush, and wrote the menu of his Bahamas Seafood Restaurant on the wall.

"I thought of making something positive out of a negative situation, using this wall as an ad for the restaurant," he said.

He has also expanded his business, building a glass-enclosed terrace that he calls the "Wall Lounge". There, he offers coffee, water pipes and fast food. One of his specialities is the "Wall Chicken Sandwich". Customers have a view of an Israeli watchtower and wall art, including anti-occupation graffiti.

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Adam Neiman, an American-Jewish businessman who comes from Boston, owns the "No Sweat" clothes range, which produces organic cotton T-shirts with a "Made in Bethlehem" label. The Christian-owned Al Arja textile factory in the town of Beit Jalla, next to Bethlehem, produces 50,000 of the shirts a year, and employs more than 800 people.

Mr Neiman said he chose a Bethlehem factory as a business partner because he felt the town deserved a break.

"I thought this would be a way for people…to give something back to Bethlehem. The world has got a great deal from this town, and Bethlehem hasn't gotten anything back."

Having Muslims, Christians and Jews do business together was also good for peace, Mr Neiman said, adding: "In order to work with each other, you have to talk to each other."

Meanwhile, a Christian online broadcast provider plans to offer a live webcast showing Bethlehem's Church of the Nativity and the adjoining Manger Square.

It is due to begin today and run through tomorrow, including midnight mass. It will be broadcast on www.ipraytv.com. The Jerusalem-based organisation said it would be replayed on its website after Christmas, in case people miss it.

The broadcaster is also offering live webcasts of other Christian holy sites in Jerusalem, including the Mount of Olives.


THE Holy Land's top Roman Catholic cleric criticised Israel's blockade of the Gaza Strip and encouraged Palestinians to seek political reconciliation in his Christmas message yesterday.

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Latin Patriarch Fouad Twal travelled to Gaza this week to pray with the tiny Christian minority there. He also went to Jerusalem, where the cleric, who is only the second Palestinian to hold the post, called for a "just and final peace in the Holy Land.

Islamic Hamas seized control of Gaza in June 2007. Israel has kept Gaza's borders nearly sealed since November in response to frequent rockets by militants. Israeli defence officials say the military is carrying out an exercise preparing a new set of towns for rocket strikes by militants.

The Palestinian Christian population in the Holy Land has fallen below 2 per cent in the West Bank, Gaza and east Jerusalem – down from an estimated 15 per cent in 1950.