By EA Eoin, Southern West Bank
Bethlehem is a busy, welcoming city. There is a festive feeling here all year around with Christmas lights adorning many streets. For well over a thousand years tourists have experienced its many religious and cultural sites. It is a city that, in other circumstances, would thrive but looming over all its beauty, strangling its potential, is the separation wall.
Israel began building the wall in Bethlehem in 2002, describing it as a means to protect the Israeli border. However, 86% of this wall has been built on Palestinian land throughout the West Bank, placing the land behind it under firm Israeli control. In Bethlehem, the wall runs some three kilometres inside the 1949 Armstice/Green Line, internationally recognised as the Israeli border. The wall surrounds Bethlehem on three sides, cutting it off from much of the region. With the rapid expansion of settlements on the fourth side it becomes increasingly isolated. The wall deters tourism and makes accessing work in Jerusalem very difficult. Its effects on economic life have been stark.
The wall’s construction breaches multiple clauses of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights as well as the Fourth Geneva Convention. It has been judged illegal by the International Court of Justice. The court’s 2004 advisory opinion called for construction to cease, for the parts of the wall built on Palestinian land to be dismantled and for people affected to be compensated. The court also called on the international community to act on the issue. To date, none of this has happened and the wall continues to expand. Right now, work is ongoing to build a section of the wall in Bir Ouna, at the edge of the Cremisan Valley just outside of Bethlehem.
A video of olive trees being uprooted Video: EAPPI
At Bir Ouna, the wall’s planned route goes through an ancient olive grove owned and tended by local Christian families since Roman times. Some of the trees are over a thousand years old. At this point, the wall would be approximately three kilometres inside the Green Line.
On 17 August, the Israeli military arrived in Bir Ouna accompanied by numerous bulldozers and began uprooting trees to clear land for the wall. No warning had been given to local landowners. Local Christians have organised daily prayer services, joined by EAs, seeking divine protection for their olives and their land. But the destruction continues.
Locals were given no indication as to the final route of the wall. They were left to work it out from the trail of destruction in the bulldozers’ wake. Until the bulldozers got to work, families did not know if their trees were due to be destroyed, separated from them on the other side of the wall or left alone. Even now, locals do not know if or how they will be able to access land they own that will end up on the other side of the wall.
This section of the wall has been the source of a long running legal dispute since construction began in 2006. The Cremisan valley is home to a Salesian monastery and convent as well as agricultural land, such as that found in Bir Ouna. An Israeli high court ruling in April 2015 called for the wall to be rerouted to avoid affecting the religious communities and agricultural land in the valley. Despite this ruling, in August the Supreme Court sided with the military administration, citing security issues, and allowed construction to go ahead that cuts right through this land.
Building the wall through Bir Ouna, three kilometres inside Palestinian territory, will sever the Cremisan valley from its people and bring it under the effective control of the settlements of Gilo and Har Gilo and strengthen their connection with Jerusalem. In the same way the E1 plan seeks to expand effective Israeli control over large areasof Palestinian land, absorbing the large settlement bloc of Ma’ale Adumin into ‘Greater Jerusalem’.
In Bir Ouna and across Palestine, the wall is uprooting not only ancient olive trees but the lives of countless men, women and children. As the wall expands, Palestinian territory shrinks. Is this wall expansion, to borrow a phrase from the recent St Yves report on the issue, the final nail in Bethlehem’s coffin?
Find Out More:
EAPPI Bethlehem Team Blog (http://blog.eappi.org/2015/08/24/uprooted-lives-christians-protest-the-construction-of-the-wall-in-the-cremisan/)