On Friday, the Christian community of Beit Jala held its last weekly mass in the Cremisan Valley, an area threatened by the construction of Israel’s separation barrier. The valley, a large agriculture area lined with olive groves, is located on the seam line between Jerusalem and the West Bank.
The Friday mass, which has been held weekly for the last two years, is a form of prayer and protest, calling for the wall to be removed.
The separation barrier will impact most residents of Beit Jala. Farmers with land in the area, the monastery as well as teachers and students of the local school will be particularly impacted.
Wall to annex thousands of acres of Palestinian land
The Israeli High Court was to make a decision on whether to construct the wall through the Cremisan Valley on the 29th of January, but has postponed the decision indefinitely. If the plans pass, the construction of the wall will, in the process, annex land from 58 Christian families in the area. The decision of the courts will most likely be to delay the decision further in light of the Pope’s upcoming visit in May later this year.
Many other residents of Beit Jala who come to the area on the weekend for picnics and walking would also be affected.
The Christian community of Beit Jala made the decision to have the last mass days before the court’s decision, in the hope that God will hear their prayers. Once the decision is made it will be hard for them to have any influence on the events, and even now, it is unlikely that the court will support their pleas.
Residents of Beit Jala are not optimistic about the future and it is likely that the separation barrier will be approved. Experience shows that the Israeli Court system does not often vote in favour of Palestinians.
“To tell you the truth, we have no hope,” said priest Ibrahim Shomali, who led Friday’s mass.
“If they take my land I will have to leave Beit Jala”
If the Cremisan Valley plans go through, the Salesian Sisters Convent and School will be cut off from the rest of the community, surrounded on three sides by the wall. Although technically still on Palestinian land, the students will be forced to cross a checkpoint on a daily basis as well as suffer from extensive military presence around the school. The monastery, however, will be annexed and unilaterally placed within 'Israeli’ territory by way of its location on the other side of the wall.
Yousef, a farmer and father of two, has farmland that will be taken if the wall is built. “If they take my land I will have to leave Beit Jala – there is nothing else for me here,” he said on Friday. The separation barrier will have a huge impact on the Christian community in Beit Jala, both economically from the loss of land, and psychologically from the constant presence of soldiers.
Creating 'Greater Jerusalem’
The settlements of Gilo and Har Gilo are located on the outskirts of Bethlehem and have both been built on Palestinian land. Many critics of the Cremisan Valley separation plan believe that it is the intention of Israeli authorities to connect the settlement of Gilo with Har Gilo, creating an artificial 'greater Jerusalem’. This is Israel’s attempt to build settlements on the outskirts of East Jerusalem, annexing the an area about 100-square kilometres wide that extends deep into the West Bank.
The attempt to create a 'greater Jerusalem’ is already evident in the East 1 (E1) area.
The E1 block is located in East Jerusalem, but all land is situated in the municipal boundary of the Israeli settlement of Ma’ale Adumim. It is home to a number of Bedouin families as well as Israel’s West Bank police headquarters. Under international law, Israel is forbidden from building settlements in this area as it falls on the Palestinian side of the 1967 border. Plans for construction here were stopped in 2009 due to international pressure. Were they to resume, Israel could effectively surround East Jerusalem with Israeli settlements. This would divide Jerusalem from the rest of the West Bank, making a contingent Palestinian state unviable.
Israel has always maintained that the wall is for 'security reasons,’ yet expanding Jerusalem’s city limits does not constitute a security issue. It is difficult to understand what security threats exist in the Cremisan Valley.
As a resident of Beit Jala explained, “build the wall, we are not against the wall, we are against Israelis taking Palestinian land.”
Pope to travel to Bethlehem
Friday’s final mass was attended by ambassadors and diplomats from around the world, including the European Union, Brazil, and Chile, and the Priest thanked those in attendance for their presence and constant support. “We felt as if at first we were alone, now we know that we are not alone,” priest Ibrahim Shomali said in an interview with the Palestine Monitor after the mass.
The pope is set to travel to Bethlehem later this year and there is hope that he will be able to exert some influence over the situation in Beit Jala. The Vatican owns approximately one-third of the land in the Cremisan Valley that will be annexed.
Residents of Beit Jala erected a sign during the weekly mass reading “we live here, we exist,” an expression that has become the slogan of their campaign. All that is left now is too wait for the court’s decision.
For the Israeli High Court to vote against the wall, international pressure on Israel is urgently needed. Without real concrete action from governments and individuals abroad it is unlikely that the situation for Palestinian inhabitants of the Cremisan Valley will improve anytime soon.