JERUSALEM — Fifty-eight Palestinian farmers, whose objections to the routing of Israel’s security barrier were rejected last week by the Tel Aviv Magistrates Court, have petitioned Israel’s highest court to hear the case. They will soon be joined by a Palestinian convent and elementary school whose earlier petitions were likewise rejected.
On April 24, the Magistrates Court’s Special Appeals Committee that deals with emergency land seizures ruled that the Israeli government has the right to build part of its security barrier in the Cremisan Valley in Beit Jala, near Bethlehem, despite the fact that the wall will encircle a convent and elementary school and separate them and nearly 60 farmers from much of their lands.
The rejected petitions were filed by local landowners and the Salesian Nuns Convent and Primary School.
Last November, in a letter to then-U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton, the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops asked the U.S. State Department to try to persuade Israel not to erect the barrier in the valley.
Bishop Richard Pates of Des Moines, Iowa, and the chairman of the U.S. bishops’ Committee on International Justice and Peace, said in the letter that proceeding with this plan would “cut families off from agricultural and recreational lands, other family members, water sources and schools — including depriving Christian Palestinian youth of fellowship with their peers.”
In a statement, the Society of St. Yves, which represented the convent in the case and is under the umbrella of the Latin Patriarchate of Jerusalem, said the petitioners had managed to convince an earlier court to change the primary course of the wall, whose original route would have put the convent and school on the Israeli side of the barrier.
Israel began building the barrier back in 2002 to prevent suicide bombers from entering Israel; while highly effective, the soaring cement wall that essentially separates the West Bank from Israel makes it impossible for most West Bank Palestinians to work, study and pray in nearby Jerusalem.
‘Problematic and Unjust’
Although the new route allows the convent and school to remain on the Palestinian side of the wall, the Society of St. Yves said it “sees the verdict as highly problematic and unjust” because it “doesn’t even discuss the violation of freedom of religion, the right to education as well as the economic damage caused for a unique Christian minority in Beit Jala [near Bethlehem] by the construction of the wall.”
“We consider the court’s decision highly problematic and will definitely be petitioning the high court very soon,” Anica Heinlein, St. Yves’ advocacy officer, told the Register.
Manal Hazzan abu Sinni, the convent’s lawyer, told the Israeli newspaper Ha’aretz that the approved barrier route will annex the farmland of Palestinian families to Israeli territory on the other side of the wall, and roughly three-quarters of the convent’s property, and surround it on three sides.
In a May 3 press release, the Salesian Province of the Middle East stated that it “strongly deplores” the court decision, Vatican Radio reported.
While the nuns’ convent and the school would no longer be separated by the wall, they would be situated apart from the Salesian men’s community and 300 acres of Salesian agricultural land that would fall on the Israeli side.
“The 450 Palestinian children, who attend the school, will have to cross a security gate at set hours to attend class,” according to Vatican Radio. “And the nuns will also have to cross the security checkpoint at set hours to access their land. Effectively, the sisters will be cut off from the people they are there to serve.”
The Catholic Bishops of the Holy Land have also objected to the decision. Wadie Abunassar, chairman of the Holy Land bishops’ media committee, told Vatican Radio that the local Church remains hopeful the wall can be rerouted. But if not, he said the 58 Palestinian families who will be affected negatively might be forced to take additional actions.
“Some of them think, unfortunately, about moving,” Abunassar said. “Others are thinking of protesting in different ways. But what is sure is that the Church is trying to [embrace] these families and to cooperate to really try to find every possible way to bring justice to them.”
Local Church leaders say that hundreds of Christian and Muslim families have left the Bethlehem area over many years due to economic and security concerns. Due to emigration, the Christian population in both Israel and the West Bank represents a mere 2% of the population.
In its ruling, the Magistrates Court’s Special Appeals Committee said it did its best to balance Israel’s security needs with the petitioners’ right to education and worship. It noted that it had permitted the nuns to join the case late in the seven-year proceedings and that their inclusion prompted changes in the barrier’s route.
The committee noted that, due to petitioners’ concerns, the school and convent will not be separated from Beit Jala, a largely Christian West Bank town whose residents they serve. Furthermore, the street leading to the school will remain open, and nuns and monks will be able to move between the convent and the Salesian Monks Monastery, on the Israeli side, through a gate Israel will place in the wall.
In the Ha’aretz interview, abu Sinni said the committee received “a huge numbers of affidavits” asserting that the barrier “would damage the social and economic fabric of the communities, block access to green property and views, damage historic agricultural terraces, traumatize schoolchildren and contravene international human rights and humanitarian law.”
Despite this, “our arguments were absent” from the ruling, which, abu Sinni said, was based solely on security concerns.
In an interview with the Register, an Israeli defense official emphasized that Israel built the barrier after the start of the second Palestinian uprising at the end of 2000.
“People must remember that before the waves of terror there was no need for a fence. Over 1,000 Israelis lost their lives in Palestinian terror attacks,” the official said. “Since the fence was constructed, terrorism has been significantly reduced, and both Israelis and Palestinians are safer as a result.”
The official said the Cremisan Valley “is a natural entry point” to Jerusalem, “where scores of Palestinian attacks on buses and cafes have taken place. Every day we still catch infiltrators taking advantage of this entry into our capital. The barrier saves lives.”
Israel has tried to show flexibility, the official said.
“The route was changed to accommodate the convent and the school. We have been working with the people on the ground to find the best possible solution to secure the area for all the residents.”
Said the official, “Hopefully, in a time of peace, we won’t need any barriers.”
Register Middle East correspondent Michele Chabin writes from Jerusalem.