Palestinian soccer fans 1, Israel's wall 0
BETHLEHEM // Whatever else may recommend it, the Bahamas Sea Food restaurant in Bethlehem does not have a pleasant view. To the north, a few houses over, the view ends abruptly with a concrete wall, part of Israel's separation barrier. To the west is the same view, as the wall snakes its way through the neighbourhood, complemented only by a few watchtowers and a Jewish settlement perched on a hilltop in the distance.
And south, immediately across a narrow road, the nine-metre high concrete wall looms out of the ground, a watchtower at one end and two cameras, 50 metres apart, peering back down from high on top. Wherever the soldiers look through those cameras, they would in the past 10 days have seen a remarkably bustling establishment. Every night, estimates the Bahamas owner Joseph Hazboun, some 100 people have gathered to watch the World Cup, which he is projecting on to a big white canvas mounted on the wall.
"The wall is a reality," Mr Hazboun, 37, said. "I am just using it for business." And use it he does. The restaurant's menu is blown up and hung on the wall, where it competes for space with various bits of graffiti, including large but rather inexplicable drawings of a camel and a donkey, the latter on roller skates, as well as the more standard exhortations to "Tear down the wall" or biblical references such as, "Forgive them, they know not what they do".
The newly added terrace, meanwhile, which without the wall would have enjoyed a fine view of olive orchards that are now out of bounds to their Palestinian owners, is called the Wall Lounge. Mr Hazboun does not hide his intention to use the wall for commercial purposes. Whether that is a good or bad thing, he admitted, he was not sure. What he knew was that Israel "had no right to build it". "They have the power to do what they want, and we are powerless to stop it. Everybody here lost a lot, money or land, because of this wall."
Israel says it is building the separation barrier for security purposes. But few believe that reasoning. With 85 per cent of the planned route of the barrier inside occupied territory, Palestinians consider it a simple land grab and usually refer to it as the "Annexation Wall". B'tselem, an Israeli human rights group, in its recently released annual report, concurs. "The route was based on extraneous considerations that are completely unrelated to the security of Israeli civilians. One of the major considerations in setting the route was the desire to annex parts of the West Bank to Israel," the report's authors concluded.
There is also another explanation for the route of the wall in this particular area. Immediately on the other side of the wall, behind where the Bahamas restaurant screens the World Cup, lies the Rachel's Tomb or Bilal al Rabah mosque area, considered sacred by Jews, Christians and Muslims. Earlier this year, Israel declared Rachel's Tomb, along with the Cave of the Patriarchs at the Ibrahimi Mosque in Hebron, as a Jewish national heritage site, sparking a wave of condemnation from the Arab and Muslim world, angry that the declaration excluded Muslim or Christian attachment.
Israel retorted, in a statement issued from the office of Benjamin Netanyahu, the Israeli prime minister, that it was a country that "is committed to freedom of religion for worshippers of all faiths at the holy places and thus it acts in practice". In practice, however, the concrete slabs here prevent Palestinians, Christians or Muslims, from reaching the area and was denounced by B'tselem for "depriving Palestinians of their right of worship".
Those gathered at Bahamas to watch the World Cup yesterday, meanwhile, readily tallied their losses to the wall. "My parents," said Basem Freij, 31, "had two pieces of land on the other side. The wall now runs straight through and they're worthless." Mr Freij, a lawyer, said Israeli justifications for the wall were specious. "They want the land to build a Greater Israel and leave us in a big prison."
His friend, Tony Hosh, 30, agreed. Mr Hosh owns an olive wood factory, one of the industries in Bethlehem that caters to the traditionally steady flows of tourists. But the original premises wound up on the other side of the wall and he had to relocate at "great cost". The two, who said they had watched every World Cup game at Bahamas so far, said they fully supported Mr Hazboun's idea of projecting the games onto the wall.
"It just shows that whatever they do, we will continue to live, to have fun," Mr Hosh said. "They can put a thousand walls, and we will still be here." firstname.lastname@example.org
Updated: June 20, 2010 04:00 AM