17 April 2015, The Tablet

Palestinian Christians’ nine-year battle against the Israeli Wall

by Fr Paul Lansu

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 

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User comments (3)

Comment by: Margaret
Posted: 21/04/2015 12:52:37

The mainstream media, including to some but lesser extent The Tablet, gives us a very limited view of life in occupied Palestine. Reading the blog of the Ecumenical Accompaniment Programme in Palestine and Israel (EAPPI) [a programme coordinated by the World Council of Churches] gives information through personal stories that you rarely if ever read in the Western press. Often the stories are about demolishing homes, cutting down olive trees, land theft, checkpoint harassment and general violence.__
One story, posted on 12 April 2015, tells of the removal of solar panels from a Bedouin community. The story also tells how some brave members of the Jewish community actively oppose the actions of the Israeli government.__
The win in the wall case is to be celebrated. But it's really a drop in the ocean. When berating Palestinians, the world should know what Israel, supported by the majority of its people, is “really” like.__
Westerners need to read the Arab press - readily accessible online. It's a very different story. Yes, it's biased. But no more so than what we get on a regular basis in the West, from the West.

Comment by: Thomas P Wahl
Posted: 18/04/2015 01:08:50

Thank you for this entry. Living in Japan, where the newspapers are not very much interested in palestinian Christians, I knew of the problem, but had not learned that this matter had been addressed by the Israeli supreme court.

I had spent a lot of time in the Holy Land and recognize that this is indeed great, great news.

Thank you.

Comment by: AlanWhelan
Posted: 17/04/2015 15:45:00

This is a wonderful victory for justice.
My wife and I saw the site for ourselves when we visited the area with fellow Catenians and Friends of the Holy Land and were so upset by what we had seen that we have written many times to Israeli authorities and campaigned in respect of human rights through The Benenson Society.

While in the area we saw the great work of other members of the Salesians family with young apprentices especially in Bethlehem and it's internationally renowned Nativity museum, which until a year earlier was under the leadership of Fr Preston, an English Salesian of Don Bosco.

We visited Bethlehem University and saw the great work of American De La Salle Brothers and we were particularly struck by the way Christian and Muslim students, especially girls, studied together. We were especially concerned at the lack of job prospects of young Palestinians, many of whom saw no future other than emigration.

Praise God that some justice has been done and please God peace will prosper in this Holy Land.

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