BETHLEHEM, West Bank (AP) - Palestinian Mayor Hanna Nasser's family has lived on Bethlehem's main road, in an expansive two-story stone home with graceful arched windows, for nearly a century.
But the neighborhood will be cut off from the rest of the Palestinian town if Israel presses ahead with a two-mile concrete wall to protect Jewish pilgrims visiting Rachel's Tomb, the traditional burial site of the biblical matriarch.
Israel says the wall is a necessary security measure because Palestinians have failed to safeguard the religious site. ``We will ensure free access to one of the holiest Jewish sites, so we will build the fence,'' said Raanan Gissin, an aide to Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon.
Palestinians denounce it as the latest Israeli attempt to nibble away at land they claim for a future state.
``This is the entrance to the city where Jesus was born,'' said Nasser, holding court at a souvenir shop along the road called Yasser Arafat street. ``These walls will never make for good neighbors. This is a mad project.''
Israeli army Col. Jamal Salman toured the neighborhood Tuesday and told Palestinians their homes and businesses wouldn't be harmed. But after the wall is built, they will need permits and will have to pass Israeli security checkpoints to reach the other side of Bethlehem.
Nasser told the army commander that Israel was violating existing peace accords, which guarantee Palestinians free movement near the tomb. ``We protest this decision by the Israeli government ... to isolate this part of Bethlehem,'' Nasser told Salman.
Nasser's family bought its home in 1910, and he was born there in 1936, he said. He now lives in another part of town, but relatives remain in the old home, which includes a one-acre field filled with olive trees.
The main part of the wall running down the middle of Arafat street will extend to the heavily fortified Rachel's tomb compound - jutting at least 500 yards into the West Bank, compared to the current border with Israel which is marked by a checkpoint.
The wall will be 30 feet high in some areas, and completely enclose a section of northern Bethlehem that abuts the southern fringe of Jerusalem. The land seizure order is valid through 2005, but can be extended.
To prevent Palestinian attacks, Sharon's government agreed last year to build a fence along the open frontier with the West Bank. However, the planned barrier dips into the West Bank in many areas, and Palestinians, who claim all of the West Bank for a state, fear it will become a de facto border.
Israel captured Bethlehem from Jordan in the 1967 Mideast War. Israel handed over the town to Arafat's Palestinian Authority in 1995, but retained control of Rachel's Tomb. Before the Palestinian uprising began in 2000, the tomb was a popular tourist attraction.
In quieter times, Israelis often visited on Saturdays, the Jewish Sabbath, and had pizza at a nearby restaurant.
Today, the rare visitors tend to be ultra-Orthodox Jews. Three arrived Tuesday in an armored bus, outnumbered by the soldiers guarding them.
Rachel, the wife of Jacob, had difficulty conceiving for years before finally giving birth to a son, Joseph, and some Jewish women seeking to become pregnant travel to the tomb to pray.
The tomb is hidden behind a long stone wall topped with a military guard post and mounted security cameras. Large concrete slabs covered with camouflage netting are part of the recent security additions.
Palestinian gunmen and stonethrowers have frequently clashed with Israeli troops guarding the tomb, and at least one soldier has been killed during the current uprising. Nasser, the mayor, said Israeli civilian visitors have not been attacked.
But Gissin, the Israeli spokesman, said ``we cannot trust the Palestinian Authority ... in the spheres of security and the prevention of terror attacks.'' He said the wall wasn't permanent, and the measures would be taken according to Israeli law, with compensation for those losing land.
Palestinians say the tomb and surrounding areas have always been an integral part of Bethlehem. The Bible, in Genesis 35:19-20, says ``Rachel died and was buried on the road to Ephrath, which is Bethlehem.''