Today, an Israeli court in Tel Aviv will decide the fate of our land. It will judge whether Israel’s annexation Wall will be built right through the heart of our community.
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A few years ago I was appointed to serve the people of Beit Jala as their parish priest. Having been born in Bethlehem and having lived in Palestine for most of my life, my identity as a Palestinian Christian has been shaped by both the joy of living in the land where my faith began and the daily struggle to keep the national and religious spirit alive in our country. That is why, in my current position, I decided to do everything possible to prevent Israel from building the Wall in the Cremisan area, which will further dispossess a community that, since 1967, has already lost two thirds of their land to illegal Israeli settlements, roads for settlers and checkpoints.
As a priest, keeping faith alive is a must. Nevertheless it is becoming an increasingly difficult task. Consider the reality of occupation in our district of Bethlehem: We are surrounded by 22 Israeli settlements that control almost 87% of our land. Israeli colonization has cut off our natural connection with Jerusalem, the city which is not only our religious and cultural center as Christians, but also our political and economic center as Palestinians.
Cremisan is one of the few remaining green areas in Bethlehem. This beautiful valley of centuries-old terraces, olives groves, almond-, apricot- and orange trees, has a unique beauty. A monastery, a convent and a winery, plus the land of 58 families in my community are being threatened by a Wall which has been internationally recognized as illegal. The Wall forms part of Israel’s wider campaign of severing Bethlehem from Jerusalem, including the unilateral expansion of the so-called Israeli “Jerusalem Municipality” into Bethlehem’s lands.
If built, the Wall will also cut off the path for the traditional annual procession from Cremisan towards our church, in honor of the Holy Spirit. Last May, when we conducted our procession, a deep sorrow filled the air as we realized it may be the last time.
But we have succeeded in keeping hope alive. For over a year, we have conducted prayers every single Friday at the Cremisan Valley, among our threatened olive trees. We have brought our families and have been joined by hundreds of international representatives, including priests from the U.S., Spain, Argentina, Italy, Egypt, Brazil, UK, Sweden, Norway, France, Belgium, Jordan, Canada and Australia. We were visited by the Archbishop of Westminster and by a council of European and U.S. bishops. We received strong statements of solidarity from the World Council of Churches and the Holy See.
By praying we sent a message of steadfastness and of belonging to our land because it represents our future. Israeli claims - that by depriving us of our land their country will be more secure - are baseless, since it is precisely due to the systematic violation of Palestinian rights and Israel’s international impunity that violence occurs on both sides. Israel, you cannot deny that we exist just as we cannot deny that you exist. And if you must build a Wall, make it on the internationally recognized border, not inside our country.
The State of Israel, which claims to care about Christians, has been involved in a systematic policy of land grabbing and forced displacement of Christian and Muslim Palestinians alike. As Christians, we refuse to be used as a tool for Israel’s propaganda, not only because what Israel says about “protection” of Christians is far from the truth, but also because it is morally repugnant for Israel to use such arguments while it continues to seize the land on which Christian communities have lived for centuries.
Today’s court process decision is the only available tool to attempt to protect our land, even though it may seem absurd that we should have to protest through the legal system of our occupiers. Our prayers, shared by millions of Christian brothers and sisters worldwide, come from a people that refuses to accept walls and colonies, and that continues to struggle peacefully for freedom and justice.
Ending the Israeli occupation, which will preserve this beautiful area of Palestine, as well as the ties between Bethlehem and Jerusalem, is key to having a strong Christian presence in the Holy Land. Unfortunately, instead of building bridges of understanding leading towards a vision of two states, Israel has been allowed to keep building walls. And so we will continue to pray for the impunity to end. This is the only way forward for a just and lasting peace between Israel and Palestine.
Fr. Ibrahim Shomali is the Parish Priest of the Annunciation Church of Beit Jala and Director of the Latin Patriarchate School in Beit Jala.