Wednesday, December 02, 2020

Cremisan land owners battle wall construction

Juicebox Gallery

By Amy Mac - September 09, 2015
Section: [Main News] [IN PICTURES] [Features]
Tags: [Cremisan Valley] [the Wall] [settlement construction] [Christians ]

Photos by Amy Mac.


Every year, Issa Elshatleh and his family gather to harvest the olive trees on their land in the Cremisan Valley of Beit Jala, along the outskirts of Bethlehem. It has belonged to his family for hundreds of years, the olive trees dating back to Roman times, 2000 years ago.


'Jesus sat under these trees,’ Elshatleh said.

Next week marks the beginning of the annual olive harvest in Palestine. But Elshatleh and his family will not be harvesting this year. The land on which their trees are situated has been cordoned off by the Israeli army and designated a closed military zone to allow for the extension of Israel’s separation barrier.

Beit Jala is a predominantly Christian community, with convents and a monastery situated in the valley alongside locally owned olive groves. On the morning of August 17, the Israeli military arrived to the Cremisan Valley with bulldozers which razed land and uprooted olive trees to make way for the planned construction of the wall.


Three weeks later the bulldozers are still there, clawing at the earth and upturning soil. The ground has been rendered useless and the once grassy valley scattered with olive trees has been reduced to rubble. Olive branches lie heaped in piles, the livelihoods of 58 families in Beit Jala destroyed.

'It’s our land, our future, our history, our memories. When I saw them cutting and uprooting the trees, I felt they were cutting a part of me,’ Elshatleh told the Palestine Monitor.

More than 100 olive trees have been uprooted in the lower part of the valley, but the military has not allowed access to the upper section so the full extent of the destruction is still unknown to residents and landowners.

The remaining olive trees are also at risk. Dust from the construction, coating the olives and their leaves, is expected to damage the produce. Denied access to their trees, landowners are unable to tend to them to maintain their health.

The destruction of the olive trees has struck at the heart of the local Beit Jala community. The village is famous for having the best olive trees in Palestine, residents claim, whose “lemony flavor” of olive oil is at the center of life and culture here.

'Olive oil is the only thing you can see daily on the table. Breakfast, lunch, dinner, you always have oil. So [the Beit Jala community] is really affected by the uprooting and the military forbidding them to collect their olives,’ said local Parish Priest Father Aktham Hijazim.

The land is also a major source of income for its landowners, who benefit from the olive trees through selling olives and olive oil as well as olive wood for hand crafts sold to tourists.

Since the arrival of the Israeli military, Beit Jala residents and Church members have been on site every day in protest. According to Elshatleh, on the first day, soldiers beat him and his brother and attempted to arrest them. His brother was hit with the butt of a gun multiple times and spent the next two days in hospital.

Open air mass has also been held daily at the Cremisan valley, often accompanied by protests and the subsequent arrests by Israeli soldiers. Local resident, 18-year-old Tawfik Affaneh was arrested Aug 30. and has remained in prison since.


The arrival of the military came as a shock to Beit Jala residents, who have been engaged in a nine-year legal battle against the Israeli military to prevent the planned construction of the wall through the Cremisan Valley.  The court proceedings are still ongoing and the Beit Jala residents, church and municipality were expecting them to have been concluded before the wall would start being constructed.

In April this year, the Israeli High Court blocked the planned extension of the wall and instructed the army to come up with an alternative proposal.

It was a short-lived victory. The Israeli Supreme Court overruled the Israeli High court in July, giving the military the go-ahead. Whilst the ruling stipulated the need to re-route the Wall around the Convents, Monastery and agricultural land, privately owned Palestinian land could be built upon.

For the church in the area, the supposed promise to preserve the monasteries in the construction of the wall means little.

'Today we can say, nobody won on either side,’ Father Aktham said.  'Neither the monasteries or the people, because on the ground, they are building the wall. Our victory doesn’t mean anything without protecting the land of the people.’

The wall that plans to be erected is for security purposes – weaving its way between the monasteries and family land as a means to protect the Israeli settlers, Israeli authorities have said. But most of the locals believe this to be a thinly veiled disguise for Israeli authorities real intentions: settlement expansion and occupation of land.

Situated on either side of the valley are two Israeli settlements, Gilo and Har Gilo.

'They want the land just to connect the two settlements. But we will do our best to defend our rights,’ said the Mayor of Beit Jala, Nicola Khamis.

Advocates for the church and municipality have asked the military to stop building the wall until a new route is planned and has been approved by the Beit Jala municipality and the church.

An appointment has been set for Nov. 15 for in court negotiations. In the meantime the bulldozers continue to overturn valley. By the time landowners have their day in court, their land and olive trees will have already been subjected to three months worth of destruction by the Israeli army.


Mayor Khamis is hoping to have the Cremisan Valley turned into a UNESCO world heritage site to prevent further destruction by the wall. However, this process can take up to a year or even longer.

Until then there is little the Mayor and the Beit Jala community can do to protect the Cremisan Valley. 'We will go to the valley with olive branches, to pray and send a message. I refuse to throw stones,’ said Khamis.

The Christian community of Beit Jala remains united by faith, but the imposing wall and sense of futility has presented a tangible challenge to the lasting remnants of hope for the community.

The Palestinian territories have already seen a significant decline in Christians in Palestine. In 1948, Palestinian Christians accounted for roughly 18% of the Arab population; today they make up less than 2% of the occupied territories.

The incoming imposition of the wall upon the land and livelihood of the Beit Jala suggests the exodus of Palestinian Christians may continue.  

'If they lose their source of life, this means no future for them. This is the only green zone for Beit Jala, what does it mean for them to live here if it is taken?’ asked Father Aktham.

For Elshatleh, whose family has been in Beit Jala for generations, he is at a loss.   

'Its very hard to say I want to leave, because everything is here. Relations, friends, memories. But for my kids, I don’t know. There’s nothing. The basic need is to be free and we miss it.’

So what is the future for the Christian Palestinians of Beit Jala?

'It’s like the fog today. Unclear’ said the Father, looking out onto the Cremisan, the full extent of the damage hidden in the dust and smog hanging onto the edges of its slopes.

'But all the military acts on the ground will directly affect the existence of Christians here.’



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