Bethlehem nuns in West Bank barrier battle

Cremisan convent and school

The barrier Israel has been building in and around the West Bank is set to deprive a Christian community of its land, and appears to have caused an unholy row between some monks and nuns - who could now end up on opposite sides.

In the green Cremisan valley, west of Bethlehem, a goatherd leans against a rock while his flocks graze under the olive and fig trees.

Nearby, a narrow road winds along the hillside to a 19th Century convent and a secluded monastery where monks run the only Palestinian winery.

For the mainly Christian town of Beit Jala, this is the local beauty spot. Residents come here to take a stroll or for a weekend barbecue. Many own small plots of agricultural land.

They also send their children to the convent school and visit the monastery to sell grapes or buy its wine.

That is why an Israeli government plan to build a wall through the valley, cutting off their access to most of it, is causing great alarm.

Map showing Cremisan monastery and convent

In an unusual move, priests like Father Ibrahim Shomali are speaking out.

"When people suffer the Church must be near them. This is not politics. This is human rights and this is Christians who must be defended," he says.

"Here, 57 Christian families will lose their land. Losing the land means losing their hope."

Bethlehem wall Part of the wall around Bethlehem

Every week, Father Ibrahim invites members of the community to join an outdoor mass as a form of peaceful protest.

Large parts of Israel's West Bank barrier have already been built.

From the Cremisan valley, the high concrete wall separating Palestinian Bethlehem from Jerusalem is clearly visible in the distance.

When it is extended here, the purpose will be to divide Beit Jala from two Jewish settlements - Har Gilo and Gilo - which sit on opposite hilltops.

While both are considered illegal under international law, Israel disputes this.

Map showing proposed routes of barrier

Palestinians see the barrier as a land grab and believe this valley is wanted for settlement expansion.

Israeli officials argue that security is their main concern.

"The route of the security barrier is based on the specific security considerations of the area. In the Beit Jala region, it is there solely to keep terror out of Jerusalem," says Israeli Defence Ministry spokesman, Joshua Hantman.

West Bank barrier

  • Total length is 708 km (440 miles), more than twice the length of the 1949 Armistice Line (Green Line) between Israel and West Bank
  • About 61.8% of the barrier is complete; a further 8.2% is under construction and 30% is planned but not yet constructed
  • When completed, only about 15% of the barrier will be constructed on the Green Line or in Israel, isolating 9.4% of the West Bank

Source: UN 2011

He adds that 10 years ago, during the second Palestinian uprising or intifada, there were regular attempts to shoot at Gilo from Beit Jala.

Local Palestinians have launched legal action to prevent them from being blocked off from the Cremisan land.

This is one of dozens of cases that have ensured that work on the barrier, begun in 2002, remains only two-thirds complete.

What makes this case different is the presence of the convent and monastery.

Two years ago, the Salesian Sisters of Cremisan joined the challenge to the route in an Israeli court.

"We want to build bridges, not walls," their director, Sister Fides says through lawyers, emphasising the importance to the convent of its primary school for West Bank children.

Schoolchildren at the school run by the nuns at the Cremisan convent The Salesian Sisters worry that the barrier could close down their school for Palestinian children

"We are committed towards education for justice, peaceful living and peace between all people without distinction."

The latest proposals for the barrier would see it looping round the convent, keeping it on the Palestinian side, but splitting it from the neighbouring monastery.

Children would still be allowed to attend the school, though they would have to pass by soldiers at an Israeli checkpoint to do so. Landowners would be given limited access via an agricultural gate, at the time of the olive harvest, for example.

Unfinished concrete wall near Cremisan monastery For now, the barrier stops half-way up a hill behind the monastery

For a long time the monks remained silent about the developments, earning criticism from others in the Christian community.

"It is of vital importance to have all the interested parties together against this wall because together we are strong," says Samia Khalilieh, who is involved in the court case.

"The monastery being with us is an important factor. It is part of our heritage."

In December, the monks published a carefully worded condemnation of the barrier route.

It said they never asked to "pass on the Israeli side" and that "the entire route of the wall was established independently by the Israeli authorities".

The monastery also tried to join the legal appeal but the court would not allow it.

Nuns and residents are due in court again in September.

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