This month, after a nine-year legal battle, the Israeli Supreme Court rejected a plan by the Israeli Government to extend the so-called Security Wall through the Cremisan Valley in the Bethleham district.
On 13 January I visited the Cremisan Valley as part of the annual programme of the Holy Land Co-ordination, a Holy See-mandated group of bishops from North America, Europe and South Africa that supports the Church in the Holy Land through prayer, pilgrimage and persuasion as it experiences intense political and socio-economic pressure. The valley is one of the last green areas in the district, with vast stretches of agricultural lands and recreational grounds.
We were briefed about the plan to extend the Wall through the valley. According to the Society of St Yves, a Catholic human rights organisation, the plan was an attempted confiscation of 300 hectares or 740 acres of the valley, and the Wall is intended not to achieve security for Israel’s pre-1967 borders but to protect the illegally constructed settlements on land confiscated in the early 1970s and to give room for expansion to Gilo and Har Gilo settlements.
The local population was afraid that the land belonging to 58 Palestinian Christian families and the Salesian convent and monastery there would be separated from Beit Jala, a town two km from Bethlehem.
The Salesian monastery was built in 1885 on the ruins of a seventh-century Byzantine monastery. The monastery buildings will now remain undivided. The “Cremisan Cellars” is a winery in operation since the establishment of the monastery in the nineteenth century. Modern equipment was introduced in 1997. The grapes are primarily harvested from the al-Khader area, which is at the west side of Bethlehem, and is marked by vineyards, and olive and fig trees. Only 2 per cent of the wine production (around 700,000 liters per year) is made from Cremisan’s own grapes. The rest comes mainly from Beit Jala, Beit Shemesh, and the Hebron area.
The Salesian convent is run by the Salesian Sisters (Daughters of Mary Help of Christians), one of the international Catholic religious congregations affiliated to Pax Christi International. The convent includes a primary school and a kindergarten and hosts extracurricular activities and three summer camps for children. The school also provides tutoring for children with learning difficulties. Around 450 children – girls and boys, Muslims and Christians alike – from the surrounding towns and villages enjoy the services provided by this educational compound. The convent is one of the order’s 1,500 educational facilities around the world teaching values of truth, just peace and co-existence between different people and religions. The barrier would have divided the convent and primary school from the monastery, relocated on the Jerusalem side. It would have annexed about 75 per cent of the convent's property and enclosed it on three sides. The wall would also have annexed the farmland of the Palestinian families.
In its ruling, the Supreme Court rejected the somewhat tenuous assurance that the Israelis would put a door in the Wall to allow the monks and nuns to go through (at the Israeli army's discretion). In practical terms, the decision means that the security barrier will not be built as planned by the Israeli army.
At the height of the struggle for Indian independence, Mahatma Gandhi famously said: "First they ignore you, then they laugh at you, then they fight you, then you win." The Palestinians have now won an important victory through their sustained and multi-pronged resistance against Israel's intention to violate Palestinian rights. In the prolonged agony which accompanied the struggle to save the monastery and in this final victory, the Palestinian concept of sumud – steadfastness – has yet again been affirmed. The “never say die” spirit has this time proven decisive in favour of justice.
Fr Paul Lansu is a Senior Policy Adviser for Pax Christi International in Brussels