BETHLEHEM, Dec 21 (Reuters) – Pilgrims travelling the ancient route from Jerusalem to Bethlehem this Christmas will find themselves hitting a dead end — a towering concrete wall and metal gate under the lock and key of the Israeli army.
The dusty road to the town of Jesus”s birth has been the gateway to Bethlehem since biblical times and would have been the likely path taken by Mary and Joseph. But today it leads to what the mayor of Bethlehem calls "the world”s largest prison".
At the entrance is a brand new military crossing where for the first time this Christmas pilgrims and local Christians will pass through X-ray machines before emerging into Bethlehem from behind eight-metre
(26-feet) high concrete walls.
"If Mary and Joseph were here today, they would go through the checkpoint just like everybody else," said Sister Erica, a nun, at the crossing.
Bethlehem is marking its first Christmas since being walled off from adjacent Jerusalem by an internationally condemned barrier Israel erected with the avowed aim of preventing Palestinian suicide bombers from infiltrating its cities.
The economy, which depends on visitors, plunged into deep recession five years ago when a Palestinian uprising began and the town became a virtual war zone, but tourism in Bethlehem has improved slightly this year.
But the mood is sour among residents contemplating the implications of the concrete wall cutting across their town.
"It”s now clear it”s not coming down. It seems very final," said Mary O”Regan, an Irish activist helping Palestinians.
Defending the barrier, Israel says it has stopped 90 percent of suicide bombings since work began three years ago after more than 180 people were killed in such attacks in Jerusalem alone.
"The aim of the barrier is to protect Jerusalem … because a significant number of suicide bombers and accomplices entered Jerusalem from the Bethlehem area," Jerusalem police spokesman Shmuel Ben-Ruby said.
Palestinians see the barrier, made mostly of barbed-wire fence and concrete walls in some areas like Bethlehem, as a unilateral border created by Israel to stifle their hopes for an independent state in all the West Bank and Gaza Strip.
The Israeli army said it was easing restrictions at Christmas for pilgrims and local Christians and that some 200,000 pilgrims were expected, up from 100,000 last year.
"We”re going to try to make things more lenient to allow them to move as quickly as possible," a spokesman said.
On the other side of a metal gate, reminiscent of a giant garage door, is the continuation of the Bethlehem Road.
The town”s once thriving entrance — where in bygone years Palestinians and Israelis milled about in cafes, local stores and even a dentist”s surgery — is now almost deserted.
Its decline began at the start of the Palestinian uprising five years ago, when fierce gun battles erupted daily between Palestinian militants and Israeli soldiers guarding the tomb of the biblical matriarch Rachel.
Today, the entrance is caught between two walls: the one that cuts Bethlehem off from its cultural and spiritual sister city of Jerusalem and another towering wall around Rachel”s Tomb, a few hundred metres (yards) along the town”s main road.
"It”s choking the life out of our neighbourhood and our businesses," said Nikola, the Christian-Palestinian owner of the Christmas Tree restaurant near Rachel”s Tomb.
"A few years ago, this place was so crowded that I wouldn”t have time to talk," said Nikola as he fried falafel balls. "These days, I can count the number of customers on my hand."
Nowadays, tourists bypass the bullet-scarred neighbourhood near Rachel”s Tomb, and head for the Nativity church. But even there, their visits are so brief they barely have time to browse at souvenir stores or grab a meal at a local restaurant.
"We demand the Israelis give Bethlehem freedom. If they won”t do it then we won”t have peace this Christmas," Bethlehem”s mayor Victor Batarseh told reporters.