Israel builds yet another wall
Bethlehem - Descending into the predominantly Christian town of Beit Jala, the serenity and beauty of olive groves and vineyards used to produce one of the Holy Land’s best Cremisan wines is suddenly broken by the bitter reality: simmering Arab-Israeli tensions about to burst.
The sight is striking: olive trees sawn in half; a yellow metallic gate under a towering Israeli bridge blocking the quiet valley; a tractor weeding out trees to pave the way for a white cement wall to emerge along a concave route that carves out the heart of Beit Jala, west of Bethlehem.
Once completed, the wall will isolate 450 hectares of Beit Jala’s agricultural and privately owned land and place them in Israel, separating them from their original and lawful owners in the West Bank, said Beit Jala Mayor Nicola Khamis.
Landowners — primarily farmers who used to take a short stroll down the road opposite their homes to reach their farms — will not be able to commute to Israel. They would have to drive for several hours to cross borders and reach the plantations. Israel carefully selects the Palestinians allowed to cross the borders.
Like elsewhere across the Palestinian territories, the result is higher unemployment and despair in Beit Jala, a situation that could force one of the West Bank’s largest Christian communities to emigrate to the West.
“Israel is stripping us of our land, forcing Palestinian Christians out and erasing any possible future for us here,” Khamis said.
The village began its battle over land in 2006 when the Israeli military said it would extend its separation wall, confiscating privately and church-owned land and isolating the Cremisan valley. The wall, ostensibly for security reasons, separates Israel from the West Bank.
Aside from the thousands of age-old olive trees and orchards, the valley is home to the Salesian sisters’ convent and school, the Salesian monastery and Cremisan Cellars, the winery established in the 19th century.
The plan is meant to isolate the monastery on the Israeli side of the wall and the convent and school on the Palestinian side, turning the area into a large military zone with Israeli schoolchildren living with an 8-metre-high cement wall as a barrier to their games.
“Israel must understand that neither concrete walls nor guns will bring it safety, and that the only way for Israel to enjoy security is to make peace with Palestinians and end its humiliating military occupation of Palestinian lands”, said Beit Jala merchant Yousef Khoury, 55.
“Enough is enough! Get the hell out.”
The Special Appeals Committee of the Tel Aviv Magistrate’s Court approved the construction of the separation wall in 2013 with a suggested route that would annex nearly 70 hectares belonging to the monasteries.
Two years later, Israel’s supreme court ruled in favour of a petition submitted by Beit Jala’s families, municipality and the monasteries against the wall’s route, ending a nearly 10-year legal battle.
The victory did not last, however. The town’s families were taken aback when Israeli bulldozers resumed work on the separation wall on April 7th, ignoring the court ruling. Cranes and bulldozers razed land and placed cement blocks at the far sides of the entrance to the valley, the last and the largest green area in Bethlehem with vast stretches of agricultural lands and recreational grounds.
The Israeli human rights organisation B’Tselem said the valley would become a free public space for Israelis in the illegal settlements of Gilo and Har Gilo. Both are part of the Gush Etzion Regional Council, which many Palestinians say will facilitate the creation of “Greater Jerusalem” and break up the contiguity of a future Palestinian state.
Pointing to the wall’s c-shape, which dips between Palestinians’ homes and takes over more olive trees and green land, Khamis said: “The wall’s path is not straight because they want to take every centimetre they can lay their hands on.”
For a decade, Beit Jala tried all means to terminate the Israeli plan. Its residents prayed at the site, invited clerics, international personalities and delegations and protested armed with olive branches.
One of the affected landowners, Samia Zeid Khalilia, spoke of her misery to see her “ancestors’ land being snatched away and I cannot stop it”.
“For Palestinians, land is everything. If they take our land, we have nothing to hold on to,” she said.
Beit Jala relies on farming, olive and oil production and woodcarving. To many Christians in Beit Jala, the wall’s completion would endanger their lives because their main source of income would be gone.
According to Khamis, Beit Jala spread over 1,400 hectares before the occupation of the West Bank in 1967 but now Palestinians only control 350 hectares. Israel seized the rest to construct settlements, tunnels and roads.
“Beit Jala is gone,” Khamis said. “Our children have no place to build and live.”