BETHLEHEM, West Bank — The Alam family used to boast of their biblical view over the lush valley outside the Palestinian city of Bethlehem. Grape orchards were carved into the terraced hills and shepherds brought their flocks to graze in the valley basin.
"You could look and imagine what it would have been like in the time of Jesus," said the Rev. Ibrahim Shomalia, a local priest.
But recent years have brought changes to the valley — none more dramatic than the recent announcements by Israel that it plans, within the coming months, to construct a circle of Jewish settlements around the city as well as to complete work on a section of the imposing Israeli-West Bank security barrier that essentially will surround Bethlehem.
"The last green spaces will be gone, the last area where our families went to pick olives and plant orchards. This completes Israel's settlement project by grasping more than 1,600 acres of land we could use for our development, and using it for the development of settlements instead," said Xavier Abu Eid, a Palestinian government spokesman and Bethlehem resident.
"The Christian community here is dying, and the settlements are choking us."
Just after Christmas, 59 Palestinian Christian families are expected to take their case to Israel's high court in a joint lawsuit to stop construction of the security barrier. Armed with Ottoman-era deeds that they hope prove their ownership over the land, the families hope to block the wall from being built in an area known as Cremisan, southwest of Bethlehem.
The Alam family is among the complainants. The family home, nestled high on a hill near the Cremisan monastery, directly faces the Israeli settlement of Gilo.
"We have watched them crawl down the hill. Slowly they expand, and where they go we cannot," said an Alam family member who asked that his full name be withheld because of the pending lawsuit.
He pointed to the red-roofed buildings of Gilo on the hills across from Cremisan. The area just below them was a faded brown, and the terraced gardens there looked as though they had fallen into disuse.
"We cannot go there anymore, to tend to the fields, to tend to what was once our home," said Abu Eid. "That there was once my family's home," he said, pointing to a crumbling wall 500 meters away. " But if I were to try and go there now I'd be shot or arrested for trespassing."
Palestinians have watched the construction of the barrier, which winds in and around the West Bank. Israeli officials said the barrier has significantly contributed to a reduction in terrorist attacks and fills a crucial role in Israel's security apparatus.
Palestinians claim the barrier's route amounts to a land grab by Israel, as it accommodates the expansion of Jewish settlements and encroaches on Palestinian land.
There are currently 27 Israeli settlements encircling Gilo. Israeli officials consider many of these to be "East Jerusalem neighborhoods," giving them a different classification than settlements in the West Bank.
Because of Bethlehem's close proximity to Jerusalem, much of the security barrier around the city is a 30-foot-high concrete wall, broken by a series of checkpoints that control traffic from and to the city.
"We have picked the olives and picked the fruit. This is what our people have done for all our history," said Alam. "And this is what I had hoped to do with my children, too. Although it looks like maybe it will end with me."
As Christmas approaches, Palestinian Christians have increased attendance at weekly prayer rallies in support of the land staying under the control of the Palestinian Authority.
"We are praying to God for a Christmas miracle to keep our land," said Alam.
At the United Nations this week, a group of European diplomats called Israel's new settlement expansion "wholly negative developments."
Britain, France, Germany and Portugal issued a joint statement condemning the "devastating" impact of Israel's growing settlement building in the occupied territories.
Russia's U.N. ambassador, Vitaly Churkin, also issued veiled criticism at the United States for not adding its name to the statement, stating that there was just one delegation that believed that Israeli-Palestinian negotiations would "miraculously" sort themselves out on their own.
(Frenkel is a McClatchy special correspondent.)
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