Near a biblical landscape of donkeys and olive trees, homes are being built and Palestinian Christians fear for their future
Amid plastic bags snagged on gorse bushes, rusting hulks of cars in a breakers yard and a few shabby trailers, traces of a biblical landscape are still to be found on a hillside between the ancient cities of Jerusalem and Bethlehem. A couple of donkeys are tethered to a gnarled olive tree; nearby, sheep and goats bleat as they huddle against the chill December air.
But this terrain will soon be covered in concrete after the authorisation last week of the construction of more than 2,600 homes in Givat Hamatos, the first new Israeli settlement to be built since 1997.
It lies between two existing settlements: Gilo, home to 40,000 people, sits atop one hill; to its east, on another hill, stands Har Homa, whose population is around 20,000, with further expansion in the pipeline. Both are largely built on Bethlehem land.
Givat Hamatos will form a strategic link between these twin towns, further impeding access between Bethlehem and the intended capital of Palestine, East Jerusalem, just six miles away.
Israel considers these and other settlements across the Green Line to be legitimate suburbs of Jerusalem, which it claims as the unified, indivisible capital of the Jewish state. Prime minister Binyamin Netanyahu and official bodies have announced a spate of expansion plans in recent weeks.
In the birthplace of Jesus, the impact of Israeli settlements and their growth has been devastating. In a Christmas message, the Palestinian president Mahmoud Abbas said Bethlehem was enduring a "choking reality".
He added: "For the first time in 2,000 years of Christianity in our homeland, the Holy Cities of Bethlehem and Jerusalem have been completely separated by Israeli settlements, racist walls and checkpoints."
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