A legal decision announced on Friday by an Israeli court has far-reaching implications for Palestinian farmers who own and work their lands near the West Bank city of Bethlehem. It also directly impacts Catholic religious institutions nestled in a region known as the Cremisan Valley.
The Cremisan Valley is a green, fertile stretch of land on the outskirts of Bethlehem. It is estimated that there are more than 50 families, most of them Christians, who own and farm the land. Although the valley is well within the borders of the Palestinian West Bank — i.e., not on the Israeli side of the Green Line or the 1967 demarcation dividing Israel proper from the West Bank — the Israeli government is planning to continue its Security Barrier through the Cremisan, in effect splitting the valley in two.
The United Nations estimates that the barrier stretches some 440 miles, more than twice the length of the 198-mile-long Green Line. Most of the barrier, about 70 percent, is either completed or under construction. The largest portion (about 85 percent) will run inside the West Bank, and cuts off almost 10 percent of Palestinian land from Palestinian control. About 6,500 Palestinians who live between the barrier and the Green Line are caught in what is called a “Seam Zone.” Therefore, those Palestinians over the age of 16 must obtain “permanent resident” permits to stay on land where they and their families have lived for centuries.
In addition to the farming families in the Cremisan Valley, there are two religious institutions on the land, run by the priests and sisters of the Salesians of Don Bosco. The priests came to the valley about 1870 when the area was still under the control of the Ottoman Empire. They opened the Cremisan Cellars, using the fertile hillsides to grow grapes and produce wines — including the sacramental wines used by Catholics in the Holy Land. In 1960, the Salesian sisters opened a school in the valley; today, it enrolls an estimated 450 students. CNEWA’s operating agency in the Middle East, the Pontifical Mission for Palestine, has provided grants to the sisters’ school to support the staff and install solar panels to provide electricity.
If the security barrier is constructed, Palestinian Christian farmers will be separated from their fields. Although there will be “agricultural gates” to allow farmers entry, similar openings already built elsewhere provide only limited access to the fields for short periods of time, making it virtually impossible for farmers to prune their olive trees or fertilize their crops and keep them properly maintained for successful farming.
The barrier will also separate the two Salesian communities. The priests will be isolated from the West Bank and will live in the Israeli-controlled “Seam Zone.” The sisters will be on the Palestinian side although the barrier will be erected around three sides of the property, creating a situation that the Assembly of Catholic Ordinaries in the Holy Land describes as “prison-like … surrounded by military barriers and check-points.”
Recognizing the already precarious position of Christians in the region, the Assembly of Catholic Ordinaries in the Holy Land, the Society of St. Yves — the legal and human rights office of the Latin Patriarchate — and the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops have expressed their opposition to the extension of the security barrier through the Cremisan Valley as it will further deteriorate the situation of Palestinian Christians, whose emigration from the Holy Land has hastened since 2000.