The little town of Bethlehem is slowly getting smaller because of expanding Israeli settlements.

Palestinian farmer Nakleh Abu Eid. Photo by Judith Sudilovsky.

At the tail end of the summer harvest season, Palestinian farmer Nakleh Abu Eid, 80, walked through what remained of his fruit orchard in the Al Makhrour area of the largely Christian village of Beit Jalla, filling a basket with figs and green grapes.

From the porch of the small stone cottage used during harvests, Mr. Abu Eid, who is a member of the Greek Orthodox church, can look out in front of him and see the Israeli settlement of Har Gilo—considered by Israel a neighborhood of Jerusalem. Out the back, construction work on the tunnel road that will connect Jerusalem and settlements in the Bethlehem area, known as the Gush Etzion block, continues, and beyond that are more settlements in the Southern Hebron area.

Before much of the land around him was confiscated by Israel for settlement construction and the tunnel road, Mr. Abu Eid said, he had almost four acres (15 dunams) of agricultural land in the valley. Now he has only one left.

Still, every day he comes to tend his orchards. In the past the cottage, and others like it belonging to other families dotting the Al Makhrour valley, was used mostly during harvest times or as a weekend gathering place for the family. But now Mr. Abu Eid’s adult children do not like to come here even for that, he said. It is too depressing for them.

Al Makhrour is one of the few remaining green spaces left in the Bethlehem core area for agriculture and outdoor recreational activities.

Located on the outer edge of the Christian village of Beit Jala and about four miles northeast of the Old City of Bethlehem, Al Makhrour is one of the few remaining green spaces left in the Bethlehem core area for agriculture and outdoor recreational activities.

U.S.-backed normalization agreements, which include a suspension of Israeli annexation of parts of the West Bank, were signed in mid-September between Israel and the United Arab Emirates and Bahrain. But the threat of more settlement expansion along the northern, southern and eastern borders of the Bethlehem core area remains a constant concern for local residents.

According to the Oslo Accords, Israel retains control over security and land management in “Area C,” 60 percent of the West Bank, where Mr. Abu Eid’s orchard is located. He feels his land is under constant threat of confiscation by Israel.

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“We live in a situation of chronic alertness, of worrying about what will happen next,” Mr. Abu Eid said. “You can’t build anything here. You can only come to take your fruit.”

While the U.A.E.- Bahrain agreements were being touted as political breakthroughs, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and his defense minister, the alternate prime minister and political rival Benny Gantz, were jousting for political support from West Bank settlers, each holding out the promise of more settlement construction as their trump card.

In early September, just after the agreements were announced, Mr. Gantz declared his eagerness to promote the construction of almost 5,000 new homes in West Bank settlements. Seeing his party falling in popularity and scrambling to secure his base of support among the settlers, Mr. Netanyahu, for his part, convened the Higher Planning Council for Judea and Samaria (as Israel officially calls the West Bank) after an eight-month hiatus. It approved the construction of 2,166 settler homes on Oct. 14 and is expected to green-light an additional 2,500 housing units on Oct. 15.

According to the Oslo Accords, Israel retains control over security and land management in “Area C,” where Mr. Abu Eid’s orchard is located. His land is under constant threat of confiscation by Israel.

The council is responsible for decisions over settlement construction. According to media reports, it is expected to discuss moving forward with plans likewise for 5,000 new housing units.

Some of those new housing units, if they are built, would be constructed not far from Mr. Abu Eid’s fruit orchard just out of sight in the south, over another hill in the encroaching Israeli settlement of Efrat, which is part of the Gush Etzion settlement block.

After a 20-year legal battle, Efrat was given the go-ahead in May by the Israeli Civil Administration to expand with 7,000 more units in a new, noncontiguous “neighborhood,” known as Givat Eitam, on about 300 acres (1,200 dunams) of land on a barren hill near the al-Nahla area, where Palestinian farmers—some of whom have land registration documents—have been farming for generations.

If implemented, this construction plan would effectively cut off 14 southern West Bank villages from their natural connection with Bethlehem and also cut off Bethlehem from the main highway that connects it to the southern West Bank, including the city of Hebron. It would also prevent the city’s growth in the only direction not yet blocked by Israeli settlements or highways.

The Bethlehem core area is already hemmed in to the north by the Gilo, Har Gilo and Har Homa semi-circle of settlements—all considered Jerusalem neighborhoods by Israel. The three are built on territories Israel annexed to Jerusalem from Beit Jala and Beit Sahour, another historically Christian village located just east of Bethlehem. The Givat Hamatos settlement, also considered to be a neighborhood of Jerusalem by Israel, is slated for this same area.

In addition, the Israeli civil rights group Ir Amim reported in May that the Jerusalem District Committee gave final approval for the construction of 2,000 units in Har Homa-E, adjacent to the area where Givat Hamatos is planned. That construction would connect Har Homa with Gilo, creating a contiguous Israeli settlement block that would completely cut off the traditional contact between the Bethlehem area’s northern border and East Jerusalem.

Israel is aiming to connect the west and east Gush Etzion settlements, preventing any possibility for the natural expansion of Bethlehem.

“In the Bethlehem area, Israeli settlements serve the key objective of severing the geographic contiguity between Bethlehem and Jerusalem,” said Dalia Qumsieh, the founder and director of the Balasan Initiative for Human Rights.

Palestinians living in the West Bank and Gaza must have an Israeli travel permit to enter Jerusalem. For Palestinian Christians, the new construction means cutting off the traditional geographic ties between the two main pillars of the Christian faith: the Nativity and the Resurrection, she said.

The most endangered areas in the Bethlehem core are the Cremisan and Al Makhrour valleys, said Ms. Qumsieh. Referred to as the green lungs of the Bethlehem core area, both valleys are surrounded by Israeli settlements and the annexation wall, she said. They have been earmarked by U.S. President Donald Trump’s “Deal of the Century” for annexation by Israel, she added.

Emphasizing that Christian and Muslim Palestinians in the Bethlehem core are affected in the same way by settlements, she noted nevertheless that these two valleys are rooted in Palestinian Christian heritage, with 91 percent of the land owners in the Al Makhrour Valley being Palestinian Christians and 85 Christian families owning land in the Cremisan Valley.

“Their annexation by Israel would serve a significant blow to the Palestinian Christian presence in its homeland,” said Ms. Qumsieh. “What we know from experience is that loss of land is not only loss of livelihood, but also a loss of hope for the future and is normally a key factor of the decision in favor of emigration.”

In addition, along the eastern border, Bethlehem is blocked by the Israeli settlements of Tekoa and Nokdim, which also wall the area off from Jerusalem. From the west the separation fence and the Tunnel Highway connecting Gush Etzion settlements to Jerusalem encircles Bethlehem, leaving the southern area including El Makhrour the only open border and the only place Bethlehem can develop.

That worries Bethlehem Mayor Anton Salman Anton. Looking down the road four or five years from now, he sees no place where his city will be able to expand to account for the natural growth of its population. There will be no green area for the residents, who will be blocked in from all sides, to enjoy, he said.

“In the Bethlehem area, Israeli settlements serve the key objective of severing the geographic contiguity between Bethlehem and Jerusalem.”

“When building [in the proposed settlement ends], they will be at the border of the city directly,” he said. “It will close in the south side, the last area where we would be able to expand.”

He fears more Palestinian emigration from the area. People leave, he said, because of a combination of economic, social and professional difficulties. With little work prospects, those with higher university degrees emigrate to pursue better professional and economic opportunities. But, he adds, many leave because they want freedom of movement, to live where they do not have to run through a gauntlet of settlements, checkpoints, roadblocks and permit requirements just to move from one city to another.

The go-ahead for the new Israeli settlement along the southern border in al-Nahla does not come as a big surprise, said Dr. Jad Isaac, general director of the Applied Research Institute - Jerusalem, based in Bethlehem.

Israel has been intent on encircling Bethlehem since 1967, he said. In June of that year, Israel gained control over Bethlehem and the rest of the West Bank from Jordan in the Six-Day War. Since then Israel has been encroaching on the Bethlehem core with strategically located settlements, said Dr. Isaac. Now it is aiming to connect the west and east Gush Etzion settlements, preventing any possibility for the natural expansion of Bethlehem and separating the Bethlehem core from its surroundings, leaving the area “one big prison.”

“There has been a slow strangulation of Bethlehem, but it has increased over the past few years since Trump came into power,” Dr. Isaac said. “They are just filling in the gaps.”

Out of 11 siblings only Mr. Abu Eid and two sisters remain in the Bethlehem area. The others, joining a Palestinian Christian exodus, have long since emigrated to Chile, Jordan and the United States. Now Mr. Abu Eid devotes himself to convincing his own children to stay. One son recently returned with his family from Greece seeking refuge from the coronavirus pandemic, and two other sons live nearby. A daughter lives in Chile. Mr. Abu Eid has 13 grandchildren.

“My children and grandchildren say they have no future here, but I always lecture them that this is their city, for them to think about staying,” said Mr. Abu Eid. “My children say that maybe they can still find lives for themselves here, but what about their children?”

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