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Last Wednesday morning, 10 ultra-Orthodox men sat near Rachel's Tomb compound heatedly discussing halakhic (Jewish legal) issues. They were sitting in a long corridor linking the tomb to a new house, which until recently was owned by a Palestinian resident of Bethlehem, who used to rent it to small business owners.

A few months ago the Palestinian sold the building, on Bethlehem's main road, to private Israeli buyers. In a short time it was significantly altered. Its facade, which looked onto the Palestinian street, was completely sealed and its rear was hastily joined to the tomb compound. The result is a weird architectural product. The rim of the pavement adjacent to the original structure is now part of the interior of the joined building.

The soldiers in charge of security in Rachel's Tomb live on the basement floor, which was turned into a barracks. The entrance hall is an improvised yeshiva. The rooms on the other floors are locked up, pending renovation. The buyers' "big plan" is to build a sort of little settlement in the expanding compound of Rachel's Tomb.

Former MK Hanan Porat knows a lot about it. "With the help of God we are progressing toward maintaining a permanent Jewish presence and a fixed yeshiva in Rachel's Tomb, as Rabbi Kook urged, and bringing Israelis back to where they belong."

The house annexed to the tomb is not the last. In the adjacent building, on the Palestinian side, a small humus diner is located - but diners are few, due to the situation. "Blessed is God, we're taking care of the humus joint too," says Porat. "The buyers have received a good price for it, voluntarily. It's a private purchase, without the government's intervention. All the official bodies in Israel know about it, but they also know it's all legal. There are other lands owned by Jews in the area, on the other side of the road."

Asked if the goal is creating a Jewish settlement in this part of Bethlehem resembling the Jewish settlement in Hebron, Porat says with a sigh: "Alas, at a later stage and smaller, but yes. It's time to renew the meaning of the verse `your children will return to their own land'"(Jeremiah 31:17).

This verse has been engraved on a wall slate in a little ceremony inaugurating the new building in the tomb compound. However, the main road's official name, once Derech Efrata - the road to Efrat - which until the intifada was also the main Jerusalem-Hebron road, is now Yasser Arafat Street. This name is still on the road sign near Rachel's Tomb - so the future residents can say their address is Rachel's Tomb, corner of Arafat.

Jerusalem's tomb

Many are waiting in line to move into the house. It will be inhabited only after the separation wall south of Jerusalem is completed. The creeping wall has been diverted from its course and will close in on the expanded tomb compound, turning it into a walled enclave. The wall bites into about half a kilometer of Bethlehem land, annexing it to Jerusalem.

"It has never been decided that Rachel's Tomb will be in C area (Israeli security and political control)," says Shaul Arieli, a Geneva Initiative activist. "The interim agreement of September `95 has a clause promising Israel free access to Rachel's Tomb, but without giving it the authorities deriving from a C area status. When they set the borders of Jerusalem, they refrained from annexing Rachel's Tomb, because it is located in heart of Bethlehem. Now the wall is in fact annexing the tomb. The wall in this area was built during the trauma of the big events in Bethlehem and Beit Jallah. In the insanity that ensued, the tractors arrived and created faits accomplis."

Huge concrete fortifications around Rachel's Tomb are severing the main road and writing a new history. The direct road from Jerusalem to Hebron is no more. Near Rachel's Tomb the road was blocked with a high concrete wall built across it. The Palestinians wishing to enter Bethlehem are directed to a small bypass. The Israelis are led into the closed tomb enclave in dozens of buses daily (mostly organized Egged trips accompanied by soldiers). Barrier 300 between Jerusalem and Bethlehem was diverted toward Bethlehem and in the future it will become a terminal like the Erez barricade.

The Palestinian businesses on this part of the road, once a bustling shopping center, closed down because their clients couldn't get to them. A handsome sign with the word "Memories" testifies to the existence of a once popular pub in the city that was once the Palestinians' big urban hope. Only a distant memory of that hope remains. The history of the main road and Bethlehem's geopolitics are changing with the help of "contractor Effie Magal," who is hanging up his company's advertisement posters on the wall with professional pride.

The Palestinian partner to the Geneva Initiative, Yasser Abed Rabu, cites Rachel's Tomb to demonstrate that the Israelis are cheating.

Last Tuesday Fuad Ahmad Jado sat at the entrance to his house, near the Al-Aida refugee camp. His address is hard to define. In the days before the wall, his power supply came from Jerusalem and his water from Bethlehem. He didn't really belong to either, and the high concrete wall creeping toward his entrance is complicating things.

Middle of nowhere

Jado's story is a test of the High Court of Justice's ruling on the separation fence. His tale demonstrates that the "proportionality" the court spoke of is like an "enlightened occupation." Three families live in the compound with Jado. The wall will make their life impossible. Are three families, in the middle of nowhere, enough to weigh against the security needs? Is the fact that Jado recently had a heart attack, after a clash with the border police, and is now facing open heart surgery, a matter to be considered? Jado, 47, who speaks fluent Hebrew, believes it is.

In the relentless 36-degree heat, Jado pulls all the documents of his history from orderly files. Order is second nature to the man who worked for years in Israel's licensing office in Jerusalem. One of the permits, given his grandfather Ayub Hassan Jado in July 1978, states explicitly: "this man was registered in the population registry in 1967 and registered in form 049556. The place is within Jerusalem's jurisdiction."

As proof Jado pulls out arnona (city rate) payment forms he received from Jerusalem's municipality and never paid. Does this prove he is a true Jerusalemite?

Not really. On April 27, 2003, another permit was issued for Jado, on which he was informed in red print that he belongs to Bethlehem. "An officer who wasn't born yet when my grandfather was a citizen of Jerusalem came and informed me that I wasn't a Jerusalemite," Jado says cynically.

The story does not end here. In recent months senior border police officers came to Jado's house, examined it and left. Then came an officer from the military authorities and informed him, "you belong to Jerusalem again." They did not come again. As a Jerusalem citizen, Jado is prohibited from entering Bethlehem, but also from entering Jerusalem, because nobody issued him a permit to do so. Jado is sitting on the land his family has lived on for 60 years and does not belong anywhere. He has to sneak illegally to his medical tests in East Jerusalem's Al-Makassed Hospital.

The wall being built on his doorstep will imprison him within it, with no way out in any direction. In the original plan, the wall was supposed to pass west of his house, leaving it in Bethlehem. But as his luck would have it, the house is near an Armenian monastery and the monks did not want the wall to separate them from their real estate property in the area. Unlike Jado, they have power and connections and the fence route was diverted accordingly.

Now Jado is imprisoned within the wall. Once it is completed, it is not even clear how he will be able to buy his family food. "Maybe they'll put up a supermarket here just for me," he quips. "But what if I need an ambulance, or fire fighters? How will they get here?"

Two months ago fire broke out in the Armenian monastery, which was empty at the time. Jado called a monk who called the fire fighters. It took the fire trucks two hours to reach the monastery from Bethlehem, from a distance of two minutes away, because it had to go through the road block instead of directly. Since then Jado is worried about needing emergency treatment.

The big plan is clear to him. Israel intends to make his life intolerable, in order to drive him from his land. About six months ago a senior border police officer ordered him to move out. Jado replied that in a state of law a resident cannot just be ordered out.

"Bring a document," he told the officer, who did not return. Someone suggested he petition the High Court of Justice. "Stop talking nonsense," he says. "I live in this country. The Shin Bet and police run it. I would only lose money."