The decline of Everest

Cut off by the security barrier, a well-known Beit Jala restaurant faces closure.

fence88 (photo credit: )
(photo credit: )
In one of the most charming spots in the Beit Jala area, Everest Restaurant has for years served as a meeting point for Israelis and Palestinians. There they have been able to become acquainted with each other in a different atmosphere from the usual checkpoints or combat situations. Near both Jerusalem and Bethlehem, Beit Jala used to be known for its pro-peace activities, such as the "Miss Border Line" pageant, joint tours of the area, lectures and social meetings. Just last November two gatherings for dialogue and co-creation of projects for recovery and reconciliation, facilitated by international mediator - the Art of Hosting and the Village Square - brought Israelis and Palestinians together there. The excellent mezza served at the restaurant and the spectacular view of the area around the hotel in which it is located provided a unique atmosphere, allowing participants to open up to each other. Today, however, as the construction of the security fence around Beit Jala draws to an end, Everest co-owner Makram al-Arja is afraid that the future of his restaurant might be very, very grim. "First, we will lose all of our Israeli clientele, since we will be inside the Palestinian area, and second, we will lose all of our lands around the building of the restaurant and the hotel - they have simply been taken away from us," he told In Jerusalem.s Al-Arja is just one of the landowners in the area who stands to be affected by the barrier. They will lose a significant source of income, as well as their family lands, on which famous olive trees grow. Bethlehem resident Johnny Atik lost eight acres of olive groves within Jerusalem's municipal boundaries as a result of the new policy. The land is just 100 meters away from his home, on the other side of an electronic fence, part of the barrier. "The olives fall on the ground," he says. "We see them, but we can't get to them." Atik says 40 families in his neighborhood alone have had land taken away. Hundreds of other Palestinians are now at risk of having land seized, say lawyers Daniel Seidemann and Muhammad Dahlan, who represent several of the landowners. Atik plans to appeal to the High Court of Justice. However, Israeli legal analyst Moshe Negbi, who is often critical of Israeli moves in the West Bank, said in an interview published on the Web site, that an appeal to the court would probably fail. "I think it [the land seizure] would stand up to a Supreme Court appeal, because unfortunately the law allows for this," Negbi says. "It isn't logical, because east Jerusalem was also part of the West Bank, but from the point of view of Israeli law, that's the situation." As for al-Arja's case, he has already lost the High Court petition. While he is thinking about applying again and starting a new case, he is not very optimistic about the future prospects. "The fence will be completed and we will stay behind and lose everything. We made a mistake as we didn't go to the court united, all of the landowners whose lands were confiscated. I don't know why the Israelis do it. They do not differentiate between the good people and the terrorists. We have never caused anyone harm, and in the end we are always alone. "During the years of the intifada, we, 93 families, were literally stuck between the District Coordinating Office and Har Gilo neighborhood, and were completely alone in this fight, unable to move, unable to do anything." Al-Arja says that he had already lost some lands in the so-called "tunnels area," where the Hebron road connected Jerusalem with two tunnels, bypassing Bethlehem and the Daheisheh refugee camp. The disillusioned hotel owner says that in the end, Beit Jala's population might dissipate entirely. "The desperation and the economic crisis push people to seek a solution abroad. Many have already gone to the USA, Latin America or Europe, and now we lose up to five to six families a month! At that pace, no people will be left here, in Beit Jala." The crisis in Beit Jala, an old Canaanite city whose name means "grass carpet" in Aramaic, began during the second intifada, when armored vehicles replaced the tourist buses in its narrow streets. The firing on the neighboring Gilo neighborhood brought the war into Beit Jala, which since then has been more reminiscent of a ghost town than the vibrant village it used to be. The people of Beit Jala feel that they were caught in the middle of a war in which they did not take part, says George, a resident of Beit Jala, looking out of his window at a building in the Har Gilo neighborhood. The general feeling here is that the Har Gilo project was designed to force the inhabitants of Beit Jala out of their homes. "Now we have to fight for our property again, and since the cost of the lawyers is so expensive, not everybody will be able to afford it. The future doesn't look good for us," concludes George.