Israeli Separation Barrier Threatens to Divide Bethlehem Christians

West Bank barrier
Snowfall is seen around a section of the controversial Israeli barrier that runs along the Shuafat refugee camp in the West Bank near Jerusalem, January 8, 2015. Ammar Awad/Reuters

Christians near Bethlehem are facing an exodus if an extension to the West Bank separation barrier goes ahead as proposed.

The Israeli government wants to extend the barrier through the Cremisan Valley, which lies between Bethlehem and Jerusalem in the West Bank.

The proposed route would involve building on private agricultural land belonging to 58 Christian families and would leave a monastery and convent run by the same Catholic order on separate sides of the barrier.

Construction of the West Bank barrier began in 2002 at a cost of $2m per kilometre. It was planned to stretch for 670km and consists of a concrete base with a five-metre high wire and mesh fence, with rolls of razor wire and a four-metre ditch on one side.

As of 2012, the Geneva Initiative reported that 434.9km of the barrier had been constructed. The Israeli government maintains the purpose of the barrier is to protect citizens from would-be Palestinian suicide bombers, but the project was deemed illegal by the International Court of Justice in 2004 for inhibiting the Palestinians' right to self-determination.

An Israeli Ministry of Defence spokesperson said alternative plans had been submitted keeping the convent and monastery on the same side. A decision on the extension from the Supreme Court of Israel is expected imminently.

The director of the Society of St Yves, a Catholic human rights organisation providing legal representation for the convent, Raffoul Rofa, says that the inevitable impact of the barrier would be to force Christians out of the region.

"Many people have emigrated and building the wall in the Cremisan Valley would hasten this process," he says. "It's another nail in the coffin."

Rofa claimed that more than 100 Christian families had already left the Bethlehem district in recent months due to fears over the barrier combined with political and economic instability.

The mayors of Bethlehem, Beit Jala and Beit Sahour, the so-called 'Christian triangle' of the West Bank, met with the pope in the Vatican on February 11 to raise the issue.

Vera Baboun, the mayor of Bethlehem and a Palestinian Catholic, said a tipping point had been reached for Christians in the region. "They want to build the separation wall in the Cremisan Valley and then expropriate the lands that belong to Palestinian Christians. If that happens, the whole area will be suppressed from the grip of the wall, and the first to go will be Christians," she told Christian news service Agenzia Fides after the meeting with Pope Francis and Cardinal Pietro Parolin, the Vatican secretary of state.

Fr Iyad Twal is the parish priest of Our Lady of Fatima church in Beit Sahour, on the east side of the Bethlehem district. He said that the plans would lead to poverty by annexing the agricultural land which families depend on for their livelihood.

"Everyone will be affected because it's the only green land left in Bethlehem. Can you imagine the wall surrounding us and inside we have all the houses and no green land and no open space?" he said.

Several international delegations have visited the Cremisan Valley in recent months. On January 29, EU delegates visited the area, with head of the delegation to Palestine, John Gatt Rutter, declaring that the EU considered the building of the barrier on private Palestinian land to be illegal.

On January 13, Dr Alastair McPhail, the British Consul to Jerusalem visited the area with 40 bishops and heads of churches. "I am deeply concerned about the proposed route of the separation barrier in the Cremisan Valley," he says. "If built, the wall would have a serious impact on the religious community of Cremisan. The Palestinian communities in this area would also lose direct access to their agricultural land, schooling and healthcare facilities."

A spokesperson for the Coordinator of Government Activities in the Territories, COGAT, which oversees Israel's activities in Palestine, could not comment on why the security barrier was being extended but said: "As far as we know, the crossing of Christians to the Cremisan takes place in a daily basis."

An Israeli Ministry of Defence spokesperson said there were two alternatives to the current planned route, both of which allow free access and movement between the monastery and convent, but they would await the decision of the court before proceeding.