Israel lifted its punishing 28-day closure on the biblical town of Bethlehem on Wednesday after receiving pressure from the Vatican and other Christian groups to end the siege.
But the overall closure of the West Bank and Gaza Strip continued for security reasons. It means that almost all Palestinians, including 100,000 workers, still cannot travel into Israel.
The so-called “internal closure,” imposed only on Bethlehem after two suicide bombs killed 14 Israelis, bottled up the city known as the birthplace of Jesus Christ. The town’s 60,000 residents couldn’t leave and thousands of tourists couldn’t enter.
Some Bethlehem residents say that the effect of the closure could endure for months, painting the town as dangerous to tourists. One tour operator sitting Wednesday in a bus in the near-empty Manger Square said she already has received cancellations.
“Tourists won’t come here for a long time. Even if they do come, they’ll be scared and they won’t walk the streets,” said Mosan Amir, 25, who has seen his trade of olive-wood crosses and scenes of baby Jesus in a manger drop 90 percent in the last month.
Bethlehem Mayor Hanna Nasser said the siege was “the toughest, longest and most unjustified closure” since Israel occupied the West Bank in the 1967 Middle East war. He estimated the cost of the closure at $12 million to the local economy.
“It completely killed the market here,” said businessman George Abuaita, 37. “Why did they lift it now? Why did it go on for a month? We think they wanted to hold Bethlehem hostage until the Palestinian Authority behaves the way it wants. … We also think that they lifted it only because of the pressure from the church groups.”
The Vatican wrote a protest letter after buses containing 600 Italian pilgrims were kept at a checkpoint outside Bethlehem for several hours last weekend. Only after top Israeli officials intervened were the pilgrims allowed through.
Israeli security agents said they believed that the masterminds of the July 30 bombings in Jerusalem were hiding out in Bethlehem. They also initially said that a “bomb factory” in Beit Sahur, which is part of Bethlehem, may be connected to last month’s bombings but tests later found no link.
David Bar-Illan, communications director for Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, said that the sole reason ending the closure on Bethlehem now was that the “security establishment seems to believe that it is safe to lift.”
But he said no such determination has been made on the rest of the West Bank and Gaza. Top Israeli officials have demanded that Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat first arrest the leaders of Hamas and Islamic Jihad movements and disarm the groups.
Netanyahu, traveling in South Korea, stepped up the pressure on Arafat. He accused the Palestinian Authority of “encouraging violence in the streets” to “prepare the ground” for the mid-September visit of U.S. Secretary of State Madeleine Albright to the region.
“We do not see the Palestinians taking the degree of action necessary to combat the terrorist infrastructure,” Netanyahu said. But on Wednesday there also were the first serious cracks within Netanyahu’s coalition against the policy of prolonged closures to fight terror.
Foreign Minister David Levy announced he favored the gradual lifting of the overall closure.
“I hope that no one imagines that violence can advance the peace process,” Levy said. “In the same way, no one must allow himself to become accustomed to the idea that prolonged punishment will advance the peace process. … I am very sorry that we have been obliged to take steps of this kind.”