BETHLEHEM, West Bank -- Hani Hayek, an accountant who is the Christian mayor of the tiny Christian-majority Palestinian village of Beit Sahour, was angry last week driving me along the Israeli security wall. "They are taking our communal lands," he said, pointing to the massive Israeli settlement of Har Homa. "They don't want us to live here. They want us to leave."
Har Homa, dwarfing nearby dwellings of Beit Sahour, seemed larger than when I saw it at Holy Week a year ago. It is. The Israeli government has steadily enlarged settlements on the occupied West Bank, and I could see both the construction at Har Homa and road building for a dual transportation system for Israelis and Palestinians.
Jimmy Carter raised hackles by titling his book about the Palestinian question "Peace Not Apartheid." But Palestinians allege this is worse than the former South African racial separation. Nearing the 40th anniversary of the Israeli military occupation of the West Bank, the territory has been so fragmented that a genuine Palestinian state and a "two-state solution" seem increasingly difficult.
The security wall has led to virtual elimination of suicide bombings and short-term peace. But life is hard for Palestinians, whose deaths due to conflict increased 272 percent in 2006 while Israeli casualties declined. In a minor incident of type that goes unnoticed internationally, Israeli Defense Forces (IDF) troopers last week killed a Palestinian man accused of illegally entering a firing zone while collecting metal scraps to sell. The Britain-based Save the Children organization estimates half the children in the occupied territories are psychologically traumatized.
Palestinians argue things have gotten worse because of pervasive feelings of hopelessness. Students at Bethlehem University (run by the Catholic Brothers of De La Salle with an enrollment 70 percent Muslim) sounded more pessimistic and radicalized than a year ago. Ahmad Al Issa, a fourth-year journalism student, was imprisoned for a year in an Israeli prison on charges of throwing stones at Israeli troops. Now he has bought into the libel that Jewish employees at the World Trade Center were warned in advance of the 9/11 attacks.
The U.S.-backed boycott following the election victory of the extremist Hamas in early 2006 has made the Palestinian Authority (PA) destitute, crippling government services. Deprived of help from the PA with the economy in a shambles, city governments are bankrupt. Bethlehem's Mayor Victor Batarseh has a special problem because tourists and pilgrims no longer stay overnight in the city of Christ's birth. Out of money and credit, he is ready to lay off the city's 165 staffers.
Batarseh, a U.S. citizen who practiced thoracic surgery in Sacramento, Calif., is pinned down in Bethlehem. A Christian and political independent who calls himself a private enterprise democrat, Batarseh is on the Israeli blacklist because he contributed to the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine (PFLP) (a State Department-designated terrorist organization). Denied permits for Jerusalem, the mayor must drive to Amman, Jordan, to get to meetings in Europe.
Contact with the PFLP is not a requirement for being holed up by the IDF. Bethlehem University students cannot get to Jerusalem, a few minutes' drive away, unless they sneak in illegally. The university's students from the separated Gaza enclave have to take classes from Bethlehem via the Internet.
Republican Rep. Chris Smith of New Jersey was at the university the same day I was, and Bethlehem faculty members could hardly believe a real live member of the U.S. Congress was there. Smith later was given a tour of Jerusalem to see with his own eyes that the separation barrier in most places is a big, ugly and intimidating wall and not merely a fence.
Smith, an active Catholic layman, was drawn here because of the rapid emigration of the Holy Land's Christian minority. They leave more quickly than Muslims because contacts on the outside make them more mobile. Catholic Brother Peter Corlano of the Bethlehem University faculty told Smith and me: "We live the same life [as Muslims]. We are Palestinians." Concerned by the disappearance of Christians in the land of Christianity's birthplace, Smith could also become (as I did) concerned by the plight of all Palestinians. If so, he will find precious little company in Congress.