Photos by Ryan Rodrick Beiler
Palestinian activists read scripture and pray during a weekly demonstration against the Israeli separation wall in Beit Jala.
Many Friday demonstrations in Palestine take place after midday prayers, but few protests are themselves a call to prayer. Such is the nature of the weekly gathering in a Beit Jala olive grove, a simple non-violent witness against the Israeli separation wall that threatens to divide village lands. Each week, a priest leads a mass among the olive trees, and though the liturgy is Catholic, local and international supporters of diverse religious traditions are often present in solidarity.
Since 2006, area residents have waged a court battle against the proposed route of the wall, which would cut off important agricultural lands as well as the Cremisan monastery and winery, an important economic, natural, and spiritual resource to this Bethlehem-area community. In 2010, the landowners were joined in their case by the Salesian Sisters of Cremisan, whose convent, including a school serving local children, would also have been isolated behind the wall. In October 2011, local Christians began organizing weekly vigils, often attended by international religious and diplomatic leaders, and garnering widespread media attention.
(Map source: BBC)
“At first, we thought maybe we would send a letter to President Obama,” says Father Ibrahim Shomali, the priest who typically leads the service, “but we know that he would not hear us. We then thought maybe we should send a letter to the leaders in Europe, but they will not hear us either. Finally, we decided, let’s pray to God—only he will hear us.”
According to Father Shomali, “The only reason for the wall is to connect two settlements.” These are Gilo and Har Gilo, Israeli colonies expanding over nearby hilltops, and like all settlements in the occupied Palestinian territories, illegal under international law. According to the Applied Research Institute Jerusalem (ARIJ), these settlements currently occupy 3,147 dunums of Beit Jala land, annexed by Israel when it unilaterally redrew the Jerusalem municipal boundary after the 1967 war in a move that no other nation has recognized as legitimate. If the separation wall is built as planned, the total loss to Beit Jala would be 6,674 dunums, isolating 47% of its land behind the wall.
On February 12, supporters packed an Israeli courtroom for a final hearing on the wall’s route. According to a summary of testimony in the case provided by the Society of St. Yves, which helped argue the case:
Advocate Nasser claimed that the real motive behind building the wall in its current suggested route is to seize as much Palestinian land as possible and to connect the two settlements of Gilo and Har Gilo. He reminded the committee that the Supreme Court confirmed in previous verdicts that building the wall should serve pure security purposes and cannot be used as a strategy for seizing lands and expanding settlements. For underlining this argument he quoted especially the Supreme Court verdict on the wall in Beit Surik. Adv. Nasser emphasized that the Special Appeals Committee should take this verdict into consideration, especially as the Ministry of Defense did not conduct sufficient surveys in Cremisan and did not consider the damage the wall would bring to the valley and the people. Therefore the ministry should change the route in the area and build further away where the damage to the structure of life of the Palestinian society will be less.
The court then proceeded to hear the final arguments of Advocate Manal Hazzan-Abu Sinni on behalf of the nuns. Advocate Hazzan based her arguments on international humanitarian law and human rights. She pointed out that the Salesian nuns joined the case at a late stage after they had realized that their position and the position of the convent were misrepresented in front of the court. Therefore the nuns, represented by the Society of St. Yves, decided to join the court proceedings to provide a full picture of their position and contribute to achieving justice.
The court’s decision was not announced immediately, and will be delivered by mail at an unknown time. On the Friday following the hearing, Father Shomali was guardedly optimistic: “If they have a little bit of conscience, they will decide for us.” In the meantime, according to Father Shomali, the vigils will continue. “We need to pray that God will give them the strength to see the truth.”
The weekly vigils have garnered attention from international media as well as prominent religious and diplomatic leaders.
The original path of the Israeli separation wall would have cut off both the Cremisan monastery and Salesian Sisters convent and school on the same side of the barrier as the Israeli settlements Gilo and Har Gilo, cutting them and a large portion of land off from the rest of Beit Jala, making them accessible only through Israeli-controlled checkpoints. Both Gilo and Har Gilo are built on occupied Palestinian territory, and therefore illegal under international law.
If completed as planned, the wall would connect with a segment on the opposite hillside near the Israeli settlement Gilo, cutting off more Beit Jala land in the process.
Palestinian activists hang a banner in a Beit Jala olive grove before the weekly prayer service.
Coils of barbed wire and a dead-end road, elements of suspended separation wall construction, lie a few meters up the hill from where the weekly vigil takes place.
Palestinian Catholic church leaders, joined by international supporters, lead the mass the week before the final court hearing that will decide the wall's route.
A local boy attends the service.
Coils of barbed wire from unfinished wall construction frame buildings of the Cremisan monastery, which would be cut off from the rest of Beit Jala land if the wall is built as planned.
Priests raise their hands in prayer during the service.
Local youth hold the Palestinian flag among those attending the vigil.
An unfinished cement curb indicates the path of the separation wall through Beit Jala land. If contstruction continues, this will be the foundation for the barrier.
With the Israeli settlement Gilo covering a nearby hillside, Father Ibrahim Shomali raises his hands in prayer during the weekly vigil following the final court hearing.