Every Friday for more than two years, come sunshine, rain, or even snow, Father Ibrahim Shomali, a Palestinian Catholic priest, has led a mass as a form of nonviolent resistance against the Israeli separation barrier threatening to divide the Cremisan monastery and a valley of olive groves from the rest of the West Bank town of Beit Jala. Organized by Palestinian Christians, this unique witness has welcomed community leaders of all faiths, international church leaders, diplomats, and journalists.
A legal appeal by local landowners against the wall’s route went to the Israeli Supreme Court in January, which ordered Israel’s State Attorney to provide more evidence as to why dividing Cremisan is necessary.
In this video slideshow, Father Shomali explains the motivation behind this unique protest, and the recent developments in his community’s legal challenge to the separation barrier.
These vigils will continue until the final hearing in the case in July. The International Court of Justice ruled in 2004 that the construction of the wall in occupied Palestinian territory is contrary to international law. In Beit Jala, as with 85% of its route, the barrier would take more Palestinian land instead of separating the West Bank from Israel on the internationally recognized border, or Green Line. While the United Nation’s General Assembly accepted the court’s decision, both Israel and the United States rejected the ruling, arguing that the matter is a political issue having to do with the right to self defense, rather than a legal one. Israel says the barrier is needed for security. Many believe that the wall stopped suicide bombings, the last of which occurred in February 2008.
But as the Cremisan case illustrates, only two-thirds of the wall’s planned route has been built. Every day, tens of thousands of Palestinian workers lacking hard-to-get Israeli permits pass through the barrier’s remaining gaps illegally in order to avoid checkpoints. Logic suggests that suicide bombers could enter just as easily. Former Defense Minister Moshe Arens also expressed skepticism about the wall’s effectiveness in reducing the threat of bombings, telling an Israeli newspaper, “It’s clear there is no connection between the wall and the cessation of attacks.” Arens attributes the drop in attacks to the work of the Israeli military and the cooperation of the Palestinian police.
In Beit Jala, says Father Shomali, “The wall is being used to link the settlements of Gilo and Har Gilo, consolidating the Israeli annexation of our land.” Covering the hilltops on either side of the monastery, they too are illegal according to international law, as are all settlements in the occupied Palestinian territories. These two settlements already occupy 778 acres of Beit Jala land, according to the Applied Research Institute Jerusalem (ARIJ). Were the barrier built as planned, this majority Christian town would lose a total of 1,649 acres, isolating 47% of its land behind the wall.
In other villages in the West Bank, Palestinian activism and legal action have succeeded in altering the barrier’s route. (See the films Budrus and Five Broken Cameras.) Beit Jala’s residents pray that their protest will be similarly successful.