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(photo credit: AP)
Time has not been kind to Bethlehem since it last hosted a papal visit in March 2000.
When Pope Benedict XVI conducts mass in Manger Square there next week, he will find a city almost completely sealed off from the Jerusalem area by the West Bank security barrier, which has been under construction there in the last six years.
"It is very bad. No one can leave the city without getting a permit from the Israeli authorities. Our agricultural land lies behind the wall," Bethlehem Mayor Victor Batarseh said on Wednesday.
The unemployment rate is now 28.5 percent and the Christian population has shrunk by 10% in the last eight years, according to Batarseh.
"Many Christian families are immigrating from Bethlehem because they can not endure living here imprisoned by the wall," he said.
Out of a population of 32,000, 40% are Christian and 60% Muslim, compared with a 50/50 split in 2000, he said.
According to a UN report issued on Wednesday, the portion of the security barrier that encircles Rachel's Tomb, at the northern edge of the city, severs the historic artery between Bethlehem and Jerusalem, so that visitors have to enter through an IDF checkpoint.
Seventy-four out of 80 commercial establishments in that area have closed or relocated since the barrier's construction, the report stated.
At a press conference in Jerusalem on Wednesday at the UN's Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs, officials said the release of the report just a week before the pope's visit was coincidental.
Although Batarseh was not at the conference and spoke with The Jerusalem Post from Bethlehem, the UN report concurred with his assessment that the situation in Bethlehem was bleak, and would only worsen unless work on the barrier as well as settlement construction was halted. The report also called on Israel to open closed military areas and nature reserves for sustainable Palestinian development.
It included a map of what the area could look like if Israel withdrew to the pre-1967 border.
On the map, if one started from southern Jerusalem neighborhoods such as Har Homa and Gilo, and traveled the width of Gush Etzion and then headed down in the direction of the Dead Sea, the overall Bethlehem District would measure 658 square kilometers.
Palestinians would be able to travel freely around the area and could develop it to meet their economic and social needs, the UN said.
The UN report contrasted that with a map of the area as it is now, with the security barrier dividing it into two sections.
According to the report, Palestinians can live in and access only about 13%, or 85.5 sq.km., of the 658 sq.km. district
For Israel, the security barrier is a necessary tool to prevent terrorist attacks. The settlements in the Bethlehem District are part of the Gush Etzion Bloc, which Israel assumes it will be able to retain in any final status deal with the Palestinians.
But for the UN, in the absence of such a deal, the settlements and the barrier have encroached on Palestinian territory and made normal development and expansion impossible.
In its report, the UN showed plans for future settlement development to show how the 176,230 Palestinians who live in the Bethlehem District amid 86,000 Israelis stood to lose even more of their land to 19 settlements and 16 outposts.
"The physical and administrative restrictions allocate most of Bethlehem's remaining land reserves for Israeli military and settler use, effectively reducing the space available to the Palestinian inhabitants of Bethlehem," the report stated.
Bethlehem's potential for residential and industrial development had been reduced, as had its access to natural resources, it said.
The security restrictions including permits, checkpoints and roadblocks had undermined the ability of Palestinian to work in Israel or engage in agriculture, industry or tourism, the report said.
It used examples to highlight the harm done to Bethlehem and surrounding villages, no matter which side of the barrier they are located on.
The report said it was concerned about nine villages with 21,000 people in the area that would be cut off from that city because they were on the Israeli side of the barrier.
At the same time it highlighted the plight of Beit Fajjar, for example, located south of Bethlehem and outside the barrier, 78 stone-cutting factories have closed in the past eight years. Out of the remaining 72, only 12 are working full-time.
Although 70% of the finished product is exported to Israel, restrictions have made movement of the goods difficult. Only 47 trucks per day are allowed into Israel from that village.
Factory owners fear that movement into Israel will become more difficult as openings that still exist now in the barrier are closed and the crossing points are moved to locations that are more difficult to use.
According to the UN report, the security barrier has also made it difficult for Christians and Muslims to travel to religious sites outside of the city.
"We need peace very badly," Batarseh said.