I’m stood on a windswept hillside in Bethlehem with about 10 other people, getting progressively wetter as I watch a Catholic Priest change into his vestments and place his civilian clothes on a hanger hung from a branch of one of the many olive trees dotting the landscape. If I tilt my head back a little I can see the Israeli separation wall (or ‘security barrier’ as it is described by Israel) that has been a growing fixture in the West Bank for over a decade. It is fair to say that this is not how I normally spend my Friday afternoons.
I am here for the weekly mass for the Cremisan community (part of the Beit Jala area of Bethlehem) which since 2006 has been held on this specific hillside, in protest at the intended annexation of the area by the Israeli separation wall. My EAPPI colleagues in the Bethlehem team join the Mass every week in solidarity with local Palestinians. The sun comes out just before the sermon and after a swift communion I spoke to attendees about the case.
|EAs attending the Mass|
I learned that this section of the intended route of wall would effectively surround the Salesian Sister’s Convent and School, which has been providing education to local children since the 1960s. Two routes have been proposed by the Israeli authorities but the Sister’s are clear that either would compromise the access of local Palestinians to education and both are unacceptable to them.
“We want to build bridges, not walls. We are committed towards education for justice, peaceful living and peace between all peoples without distinction”
Sister Fides, the directress at Cremisan states in a publication by Catholic Human Rights Organisation The Society of St Yves, which has been arguing in court against the planned annexation.
The Cremisan valley is situated between the settlement of Gilo ( within Palestinian East Jerusalem), where 40,000 Israeli citizens are located and the much smaller Bethlehem-area settlement of Har Gilo, where around 500 people reside. It is one of the last green areas in the Bethlehem district, with stretches of agricultural lands, including around half of the olive groves in the Beit Jala area, and recreational grounds. In addition to the Salesian Sisters Convent and School, the Salesian Monastery and its renowned winery ‘Cremisan Cellars’ are located within the valley, as well as 58 Palestinian families who risk losing their lands through Israeli confiscation.
Father Ibrahim Shomali, the priest who conducts the weekly ceremony said
This land is Christian. If they take it we will have no future here
Bethlehem is already heavily affected by the wall. Movement into the city is regulated by 10 checkpoints in the wall controlled by the Israeli military. According to the Applied Research Institute, Jerusalem, the overall intended extension of the wall into Bethlehem is almost 5.96 kilometres. The impact of Israeli occupation includes a contribution to the decline of the Christian population of Bethlehem. T he number of Christians within Bethlehem, is in decline. It dropped from 20,000 to 7,500 between 1995 and 2010 alone, with the majority in a 2010 survey citing the occupation as their prime motivation. If completed, construction of the wall in Bethlehem will ultimately confiscate and isolate 4012 dunums of land, 37.8 percent of the total area of the City. These measures will also incorporate the Gilo and Har Homa settlements within the extended Jerusalem municipal boundaries recognized by Israel. The construction in Cremisan is integral to this projec, in a strategically important location, which, if implemented will allow further expansion for the settlements of Gilo and Har Gilo.
As Father Ibrahim says
“1,200 acres from the land to extend Jerusalem…to connect Gilo and Har Gilo, taking over the valley and filling it with colonies…this is happening all over Palestine”
|Graffiti on the Separation Wall in Bethlehem|
Plans to construct the wall were first announced in 2000 during the Camp David peace talks. Its construction began in 2002, with its aim stated as the prevention of terrorist violence against civilians.
The Security Fence is being built with the sole purpose of saving the lives of the Israeli citizens who continue to be targeted by the terrorist campaign that began in 2000. The fact that over 800 men, women and children have been killed in horrific suicide bombings and other terror attacks clearly justifies the attempt to place a physical barrier in the path of terrorists….the State of Israel not only has the right but also the obligation to do everything in its power to lessen the impact and scope of terrorism on the citizens of Israel
Were the wall to be built along the 1949 ‘Green Line’, that distinguishes the West Bank of the occupied Palestinian Territory from Israel, it might be legal under international law. However approximately 87% of the barrier's planned route runs through the West Bank, mainly to place Israeli settlements and industrial zones on the Israeli side. By July 2012, construction of the barrier was 62% complete. It left some 3% of the West Bank territory cut off, west of the barrier. Completed as planned, the barrier will isolate an additional area of more than 6% of West Bank lands on the Israeli side. In 2004 the International Court of Justice rendered an advisory opinion judging the wall to be illegal under international law
"Israel cannot rely on a right of self-defence or on a state of necessity in order to preclude the wrongfulness of the construction of the wall".
The Court stated that
"the construction of the wall, and its associated régime, are contrary to international law"
The United Nations Generally assembly subsequently passed a resolution that condemned the wall, alongside a renewed call for both Israeli and Palestinian actors to honor their commitments under the ‘Roadmap for Peace’. Despite this widespread condemnation, the construction of the wall has continued alongside the expansion of settlements in the West Bank. Reports in Israeli media on recently disclosed government documents (brought to light by an Israeli peace activist) suggest that, prior to the commencement of its construction, the route of the wall was
planned so that in the future a number of not yet built settlements could be constructed on West Bank land.
Regarding Bethlehem, Kairos Palestine, a Christian alliance which is supporting the struggle of the residents of Beit Jala, said in a recent publication
Land confiscation, as well as the influx of Israeli settlers, suggest that there will be no future for Palestinians (Christian or Muslim) in [this] area. In this sense, the prospect of a clear 'solution' grows darker every day.
Israeli Human Rights group B’T Selem state that
The barrier’s location within the territory of the West Bank and the imposition of a rigid permit regime infringe on a long list of Palestinians’ human rights. These include the right to freedom of movement—and hence also the right to work, education, medical care, a family life, a livelihood and a normal quality of life. Palestinians’ collective right to self-determination is also damaged
|Map of the route of the wall, noting the location of the Cremisan valley|
So what hope remains for the Palestinians of the Cremiaan Valley? Actions by Palestinians, Israelis and internationals to stop or reroute construction of the wall have been successful on occasion. By winning support, whether on environmental grounds, as recently occurred in the case of Battir, or via concerted nonviolent direct action, as documented in the film Budrus (about the village of the same name), these cases have been the exception rather than the rule.
The people of the Cremisan valley have not given up on being another exception. The final court hearing on the case is scheduled to take place in Israel next week and a final mass and press conference will be held this Friday. The Society of St Yves is appealing for support in petitioning Israel to stop this plan and I invite readers to review the petition and consider lending your support. Teresa Parker of Quaker Peace and Social Witness, who coordinate EAPPI in the UK and Republic of Ireland, says
Not everyone can be an EA but taking part in this nonviolent action is open to all.
Father Ibrahim echoed this call and reaffirmed the importance of international solidarity whilst also expressing faith in a higher power to resolve the issue.
I believe that the same god who stopped the rain today will stop the Israeli wall.
|Father Ibrahim on the Cremisan Hillside|