For months, the world has been fixated on Jerusalem. Car attacks, revenge killings, settler violence, demolition of Palestinian homes, and the fate of the al-Aqsa compound, The third most holy site in Islam, have kept the city planted on the edge.
Just yesterday, the killing of five Israelis in a Jerusalem synagogue – three Americans and a Briton who all held Israeli citizenship – by two members of the leftist group the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine, may have succeeded in pushing things over the edge it has been sitting on.
However, Jerusalem is not the only holy city experiencing daily unrest. Bethlehem and the surrounding area, home to both ancient biblical villages and refugee camps set up after the creation of Israel in in 1948, have been host to intensifying clashes between Israelis and Palestinians.
“What happens in Jerusalem, happens here,” Mustafa al-Araj, a 27 year-old resident of the Aida refugee camp in Bethlehem, told Al Jazeera. He believes that the events of Jerusalem and those of Bethlehem are inseparable. “When there’s a problem there, we deal with it in Aida.
Al-Araj said that confrontations increased during Operation Brother’s Keeper, a widespread military crackdown and search for three kidnapped Israeli settlers conducted by the Israeli army in the occupied West Bank this past summer.
“Over the last month, things have been very bad,” he reflected on the state of affairs in Aida refugee camp as tensions from Jerusalem have spilled over into Bethlehem. Al-Araj said that clashes now take place more than three times a week.
“The [Israeli] military base is there,” al-Araj said, motioning from the roof of the Aida Youth Centre, littered with spent tear gas canisters, towards a watchtower less than two kilometres away. “When Israel comes into the area surrounding Bethlehem, they come through here.”
Israeli incursions have been numerous over the past months. On August 31, Israel announced it would annex 400 hectares of land west of Bethlehem for the Gush Etzion settlement block. The Israeli army has since increased its presence in the area, restricting several villages’ access to the rest of the West Bank.
On Tuesday, November 11, restrictions worsened. The Israeli army used sizable concrete slabs to block the tunnel that connects several western villages, including Wadi Fukin , al-Khader and Nahalin, to Bethlehem.
The closure caused the residents of these communities to express concerns that it was another step in Israel’s plans to annex the area, stoking frustrations.
According to Baha’ Hilo, an activist from Bethlehem, when Israel closes part of the West Bank, Palestinians “know that annexation is coming.”
“Residents don’t have access to schools, hospitals, and their friends and families,” Hilo said, referring to the villagers’ circumstances. “After a period of isolation, they start to consider moving.” Palestinians leaving annexed land is “exactly what Israel wants.”
Settler violence is also increasingly common in the area. The agricultural lands of Nihilin come under frequent attack, with religious Jewish settlers “torching” olive trees and hassling residents. “There are no consequences for these people,” Hilo concluded.
The Gush Etzion settlement block extends to the southeast of Bethlehem, surrounding the village of Taqua.
The main road between Bethlehem and Taqua runs by the settlements of Tekoa, named after Taqua, and Nokdim.
Because of the proximity of these settlements to the Palestinian village, an Israeli army contingent remains stationed on the road, monitoring the movements of male and female students who attend secondary schools on either side.
On November 11, the anniversary of former Palestinian President Yasser Arafat’s death, is a holiday for Palestinian students.
The youth of Taqua used the day to demonstrate against what they viewed as Israeli attempts to control the al-Aqsa compound, beginning their protest in the school’s courtyard and the surrounding hills.
Faiez Taamreh, an English teacher at the Boy’s Secondary School of Taqua, said the army responded quickly. “By 8 am, the soldiers were shooting tear gas,” he told Al Jazeera after school finished for the day.
“The teachers were trapped on school grounds until 10 am.” After they fled, soldiers “broke through the main gate” and allegedly occupied the school for “three or four hours.” .
Taamreh added that the army commonly antagonises his pupils. Soldiers often make students “stand wait for long periods of time for no apparent reason,” but the events in Jerusalem have made things “much worse.”
Until time of publication, Israeli army was still looking into Al Jazeera’s inquiry.
Simon Reynolds, the legal advocacy officer for Badil, the Resource Centre for Palestinian Residency and Refugee Rights , a Bethlehem based NGO that focuses on the rights of refugees in the surrounding refugee camps, agreed that things have become more difficult recently.
Bethlehem’s “situation, on the whole, is getting worse,” he continued. Night raids and arrests are “all occurring with greater frequency. There’s not a single member of the community that’s not affected by it.”