Our journey in the Holy Land took the bishops to the Cremisan Valley in Beit Jala, which is part of the Bethlehem district. This valley has been contested over the last few years. The Israeli government says for security reasons it intends to build a separation wall through the region. But such a wall would have a significant impact not only on the local residents, but also on two religious communities of Salesians who live, work and minister there.
The Society of St. Yves — a center for human rights of the Latin patriarchate based in Jerusalem — claims the wall is really a way to secure Christian-owned land in the Palestinian West Bank to allow Israel to build 800 new housing units that would be part of the Gilo settlement right beside the valley.
According to the Israeli government, a wall will be necessary to protect the Israeli settlements in the area. One can argue that with the recent high tensions between Israel and Palestine, that security is becoming increasingly important. Israeli settlements, such as Gilo, however, are not recognized by the international community.
On 4 September 2014, the Israeli Ministry of Defense presented to the Supreme Court two proposed alternatives, which showed that the actual wall route could be changed to better serve all parties. It would allow the Salesian Sisters and the Salesian Brothers to remain on the Palestinian side of the wall.
The Society of St. Yves is suggesting that, if there is going to be a wall, it may not impact the 50 Christian families that own property in the valley, or disrupt the harvesting of olives, fruits, nuts and much more. Also, it would secure the Salesian Sisters’ elementary school of 450 children, who can’t live in what would become a military zone if the wall is built on the original proposed route. Furthermore, it would allow the Salesian Brothers to continue producing their famous wine and other produce from the land — an industry that creates many jobs for Palestinians and attracts pilgrims.
The court is now exploring all possibilities and should give its verdict soon. It would be devastating for the Salesians — and the Christian community in general — if the Israeli court ignores the proposed alternatives of the Israeli Ministry of defense, and permits the wall to be constructed as originally planned.
As a Christian man told us, this land was owned for several generations by his family; his livelihood would be destroyed, since he receives much revenue from it. His children already told him that if the wall is built, they would have no choice but to leave the Holy Land for good.
As the Latin Patriarch Fouad Twal told us, “Actually, there shouldn’t be any walls at all.” Palestinians and Israelis need to have a common place where both peoples can talk, meet, trade and build peace for the generations to come.
In the meantime, the bishops will continue to raise this issue in their respective countries and they invite anyone interested in peace to do the same by writing letters to their government and their Israeli Embassy.