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Issue #1696      August 5, 2015

Israel’s wall to divide Christian community

The Israeli high court ruled last month that the military can begin construction on a segment of Israel’s wall in the West Bank that will divide land belonging to the town of Beit Jala.

The West Bank town of Beit Jala.
The West Bank town of Beit Jala.

The news shocked residents who believed that a high court ruling in April this year blocked construction in that area while the army was ordered to find a less disruptive route.

If built as originally planned, the wall would have cut off the Cremisan Salesian monastery and convent from the rest of the Beit Jala community.

With this latest ruling, construction will proceed with only minor changes – still dividing the land while carving out a small enclave to keep the religious sites accessible.

Battles

Residents have fought legal battles against construction of the wall on their land for nearly a decade. In 2011, local Catholic leaders began holding public vigils every Friday, garnering international diplomatic and media attention.

Appeals were made to Pope Francis during his trip to Bethlehem last year and during a visit to the Vatican by Bethlehem Mayor Vera Baboun last February.

According to the Society of St Yves, a Catholic centre for human rights that has represented the convent, the court’s April ruling declared that the military’s original route “greatly harms and violates the rights of both the local community and the monasteries.”

The military was therefore ordered to put forward an alternative route that would reduce the damage to the local community and maintain its geographical integrity.

Siding with military

The military’s alternative route interpreted that ruling in the narrowest manner possible, maintaining access to the convent and monastery by carving out a small section around them, but still confiscating and dividing lands that are privately owned by Palestinian residents of Beit Jala.

“They [the military] claim that the previous supreme court order to stop building the wall months ago was not final and only prevented the army from coming near the property of the convents,” said Raed Abed Rabbo of the Applied Research Institute Jerusalem, a Palestinian group which has been active in the struggle against the wall.

“We months ago reminded the authorities, the church and the municipality, after analysing the court order, that it is not final so don’t be optimistic. Sooner or later they will start again,” he added.

International media had also trumpeted the April decision as a triumph for Beit Jala’s residents. Coming just days before Easter, it was particularly poignant news in the historically Christian village perched on the hill overlooking Bethlehem from the west.

The BBC quoted the Latin Patriarch of Jerusalem, Fuad Twal, as saying at the time, “This is a victory for everyone.”

After the army submitted its alternative route, an application for an injunction to prevent construction was filed by lawyers representing residents. In this month’s ruling, the high court essentially sided with the military, giving the green light for construction to commence.

Setback

Two thirds of the wall’s planned route has been built. Gaps in the wall, like the one in Cremisan, debunk the Israeli claim that the wall has stopped suicide bombings.

Every day, tens of thousands of Palestinian workers lacking hard-to-get permits pass through the wall’s remaining gaps, indicating that, as former Israeli Defence Minister Moshe Arens told the Israeli newspaper Maariv, “It’s clear there is no connection between the wall and the cessation of attacks.”

The International Court of Justice ruled in 2004 that the construction of the wall in the occupied West Bank is contrary to international law. Some 85 percent of the wall’s path lies not on the internationally recognised boundary, or green line, with present-day Israel, but instead further divides land in the West Bank.

Father Ibrahim Shomali is a local Catholic priest who has led the weekly vigils. In Beit Jala, Shomali said, “the wall is being used to link the settlements of Gilo and Har Gilo, consolidating the Israeli annexation of our land.”

These two settlements already occupy 872 acres of Beit Jala land, according to the Beit Jala Municipality. Covering the hilltops on either side of the monastery, like all settlements in East Jerusalem and the rest of the West Bank, they too are considered illegal under international law.

With this latest setback, local activists are looking elsewhere for justice.

According to Beit Jala resident George Abu Eid, the high court’s ruling “is not surprising at all for those who have been living under this brutal military regime for a very long time. Obviously, Israel will never halt its colonial projects in the West Bank until there’s a real pressure and cost put on it.”

Abu Eid explained that the Palestinian-led boycott, divestment and sanctions movement today “should be the only response to Israel’s illegal policies. That’s how you stop it, that’s how you end its illegal military occupation of the Palestinians.”

The Electronic Intifada

Next article – 60,000 call for justice for Tamir Rice

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