Putting Cremisan Valley on the Pope's Agenda

The court has spoken and the valley will be split by the barrier. 'Jesus told us not to fear,' says Father Ibrahim Shomali.

For decades the monks and nuns of the Cremisan Valley, between Bethlehem and Jerusalem, have been organic to the local Palestinian community.

The nuns run a primary school for needy Palestinian children and the monks operate the only winery made with Palestinian grapes. Locals say the valley housing the convent and monastery, where families love to stroll and picnic, is also the most important green space in the Bethlehem area.

Yet last Wednesday a civil court ruling made it legal for Israel’s separation fence to divide the valley.

The Special Appeals Committee of the Tel Aviv Magistrate's Court approved land appropriation for the barrier along a route that would annex about 75 percent of the convent's property and enclose it on three sides, the convent’s lawyer, Manal Hazzan abu Sinni, told Haaretz.

The route will also annex farmland of 58 Palestinian families to Israeli territory, she claims, vowing to appeal to the High Court of Justice.

Legal proceedings began almost seven years ago, when the first petition against the seizure of Cremisan property for the barrier route was filed by Beit Jala residents, who were later joined by the nuns and monks.

Israel began planning its separation fence in 2002 as a response to terror attacks. About 100 petitions have since challenged the route, but most have been rejected by the High Court of Justice as well as the Specials Appeals Committee, which reviews petitions against land seizures based on Israel’s 1949 Emergency Land Requisition Law.

Palestinians claim the barrier's route is designed to annex Palestinian property. According to the human rights group B’Tselem, 85 percent of the route falls inside the West Bank instead of following the Green Line.

A peaceful valley

In the Cremisan Valley, residents of Beit Jala, whose village abuts the valley, say there has not been any violence there in many years, without any barrier. They believe that the real reason for the planned route cutting through the village is that Israel wants to connect the West Bank Jewish settlement of Har Gilo to the Jerusalem neighborhood of Gilo.

Gilo was one of the first Jewish neighborhoods built on the land annexed to Jerusalem after 1967. The Jerusalem planning authorities have already approved plans to expand Gilo toward Cremisan, Hazzan abu Sinni says.

A Defense Ministry spokesperson said initial plans for the barrier that put the monastery on the Israeli side were drawn up in 2005, in consultation with the Defense Ministry, the Vatican and its local monasteries.

“The solution for the convent’s need to continue educating Beit Jala's children is a special gate for the children, teachers and workers," the ministry stated.

It also argues that from the perspectives of security and topography, there is no option for the monastery and its land to stay on the West Bank side of the barrier.

"Therefore, security officials announced that they would change the route so that the convent would not be severed from Beit Jala, but the significance is that part of the land remains on the Israeli side of the fence," it continued.

Then in 2012, the monks also announced that they wanted to stay on the Beit Jala side of the fence. Ultimately the court rejected the appeals of the residents and the clerics, the ministry said.

Nothing said, nothing gained

The final arguments in the case were made in February at the Tel Aviv Magistrate's Court. According to Hazzan abu Sinni, “huge numbers of affidavits” argued that the route 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.

It isn't that the ruling rejected the petitioners' claims, says Hazzan abu Sinni - it  ignored them entirely.  “Our arguments were absent [from the ruling] – not rejected.” The appeals committee adopted the army's military and security narrative and ignored the residents' arguments, she says.

The ruling says a gate could be erected to connect the areas of the monks and nuns, allowing the monks to continue leading mass on the convent grounds, in respect of Israel’s law of religious liberty.

But the gate “is not enough to protect freedom of religion” because it does not address holidays where the monks and nuns do processionals together on the shared grounds, argues Anica Heinlein, an advocacy officer for the Latin Patriarchate’s Jerusalem-based Society of St. Yves.

“The monks don’t want to be on the Israeli side. They want to be with the community, according to their testimony,” said Heinlein, who is representing the clerics. “The nuns … had plans to expand the school but now they won’t have space. The road leading to the school will have a heavy military presence; they are concerned that children will drop out."

The lawyers said they were asking the pope in a letter to keep Cremisan on the agenda when he meets Monday with President Shimon Peres.

Prayers and nonviolent protest

The legal team joined more than 30 community members and supporters late Friday afternoon in the rocky shade of olive groves near the convent. After a moment of silence to lament the court verdict, the community observed Catholic mass. Behind them on the top of the hill, a large handmade banner read: "We live and exist here.”

Though a number of Christian clerics were present, no monks or nuns joined because they had decided to focus on their mission and not speak further with the press or attend public events, Hazzan abu Sinni said.

Father Ibrahim Shomali, a Catholic priest from the Beit Jala Church, followed the Arabic-language mass with a sermon in English. “Jesus told us don’t be afraid and we are not afraid,” he said. “We will continue our nonviolent fight against injustice.”

Shomali explained that the Arabic-language mass every Friday in the olive groves was launched in 2011 to encourage the “message to follow the nonviolent path of Jesus” in the protest against the barrier.

Many participants said after the prayers that they were feeling sad, angry or in despair. Abdallah abu Eid, a local in his 70s, said he was feeling “choked and strangled” at the thought of a wall running through the village where he grew up. “Look how beautiful it is,” he said.

Later, the community walked down to the gates of the convent, founded in 1960. They looked out about 200 meters down the road onto the contiguous property, where the 1885 monastery and its vineyards overlooked the valley.

As the receding sun threw long shadows behind them, the locals talked about what will happen if they can no longer make this walk on their beloved stomping ground.

Beit Jala resident Antwan Saca, 28, lamented that he had given so much energy to the peace camp yet it had not helped change his village's fate. “This is where my wife and I come to hide, to be in nature, to be away from the pressure of life,” he said.

Saca said he also worried that his neighbors may eventually lose access to their agricultural properties if permits are not given or renewed to cross the gate. The land appropriations “are killing the hope for peace and livelihood and [Palestinian] statehood in peace next to Israel,” he said.

According to Saca, the "We live and exist here" sign was made big enough and placed on high enough ground so that Israelis “on the other side of the valley would see it and realize that we are here.”

Lauren Gelfond Feldinger
Antwan Saca