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Bethlehem adapts to life in shadow of Israeli wall

Most of the thousands of pilgrims expected in Bethlehem on Christmas Eve probably won't venture far beyond the lights of Manger Square.

world Updated: Dec 23, 2008 12:08 IST

Most of the thousands of pilgrims expected in Bethlehem on Christmas Eve probably won't venture far beyond the lights of Manger Square. A few streets away, Palestinians struggle with a tough reality, including a towering wall choking their town. Some have found ways to adapt.

Claire Anastas lives in a three story house that is ringed on three sides by Israel's separation barrier, a gray cement wall that reaches just below her roof. The wall deprived her family of its livelihood, a car repair business that went under because customers could no longer get there.

Now 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, with a removable wall, just in case holiday shoppers occasionally want a more festive display.

Anastas said she's sold 90 nativity with wall scenes so far, out of 300 in stock. "This symbolizes the situation and so they demand it," Anastas said of her customers.

Before getting into the souvenir business, she often hosted foreign solidarity groups in her home, which became a draw for political tourists because of its setting.

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's meant to keep out Palestinian attackers, but the barrier also slices off 10 percent 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, to separate Rachel's Tomb, a site revered by Jews, from the rest of the city.

Anastas' house is close to the loop formed by Rachel's Tomb. Three families used to live in her building, all related. But with Bethlehem's economy hit hard by years of Israeli Palestinian fighting, the wall and other restrictions, Anastas' brother-in-law moved his family to Jordan. Anastas is also thinking of leaving if the financial situation does not improve.

For now, she tries to cheer up her four children, ages 11 to 19, particularly at Christmas time. She'll put up a Christmas tree soon and promised a gift bearing Santa would come to the house. On Christmas Eve, the family will attend open air choir concerts in Manger Square.

"These make us happy," she said. "We feel there's something beautiful left."

Several businesses in Anastas' neighborhood have shut down because of the wall.

But one of her neighbors, John Hazboun, 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 said he has bookings for Christmas and New Year's, including tour groups.

He also expanded his business, building a glass-enclosed terrace he calls the "Wall Lounge." There, he offers coffee, water pipes and fast food. One of the specialties is the "Wall Chicken Sandwich."

Customers have a view of an Israeli watchtower and wall art, including anti occupation graffiti. There are also huge paintings, including one of a black camel with tiny people trying to climb on its back, seemingly as a stepping stone to get to the other side. Hazboun shuttered the restaurant in 2000 after the outbreak of Israeli-Palestinian fighting, but reopened in July. "We felt the situation had improved a bit," he said.

The organic cotton T-shirts with the "Made in Bethlehem" label are a Christian-Jewish-Muslim co-production.

The Christian owned Al Arja textile factory in the town of Beit Jalla, next to Bethlehem, produces the shirts for the US label "No Sweat," owned by American Jewish businessman Adam Neiman from Boston.

The more than 800 workers in the Beit Jalla factory are Christians and Muslims, including veiled women sitting behind rows of sewing machines.

Neiman does business with textile companies in the US and in developing countries, as part of a campaign against sweatshops. He's been working with the Al Arja factory for the past two years, getting 50,000 T-shirts made there. Many of his customers are Christian and Jewish institutions, such as schools and summer camps. Bethlehem's unemployment rate is 16 percent, and factory jobs are in short supply. Workers at Al Arja get 21 paid holidays per year, and work 48 hours a week. Wages for seamstresses range from 86 cents to $1.60 an hour, while the top skilled workers make $3.66 an hour. Neiman said the wages, even if they seem low to Westerners, place the workers well within the Palestinian pay scale. "Decent conditions, pay that offers a path to the middle class, no forced overtime, paid holidays this is a huge step up from the truly brutal sweatshop conditions that these factories must compete with," he said.

He said he chose a Bethlehem factory as a business partner because he felt the town deserves a break.

"I thought this would be a way for people to give something back to Bethlehem," he said. "The world has gotten a great deal from this town, and Bethlehem hasn't gotten anything back." Having Muslims, Christians and Jews do business together is also good for peace, he said. "In order to work with each other, you have to talk to each other."

First Published: Dec 23, 2008 11:55 IST