Bethlehem mayor will meet the Pope next month and ask him to intervene with Israel against building the barrier in area.
BEIT JALA – Representatives from 22 European Union member states converged on the Silesian Sisters Convent on the edge of this West Bank town, to protest Israel’s plan to extend the controversial barrier that Israel is building in and around the West Bank through this area.
“The fact that we are all here is a message that the European Union is united in expressing its concern over the impact the barrier would have on the local community here,” EU Representative John Gatt-Rutter told The Media Line. “This is not a new issue but there is a sense that it is reaching a critical moment.”
Bethlehem mayor Vera Baboun said that she, along with the mayors of the two neighboring towns of Beit Sahour and Beit Jala, will meet the Pope next month and ask him to intervene with Israel against building the barrier here.
The Silesian Sisters convent is at the edge of a valley that separates it from Gilo, a Jewish neighborhood in part of Jerusalem that Israel acquired in 1967. From the school, the red roofs of Gilo are clearly visible. The Sisters run a school for 450 children, many of them underprivileged, that offers a special program for learning disabilities. Most of the Convent and the nearby Cremisan Monastery and winery are in Area C, the 60 percent of the West Bank that is under sole Israeli control, although part of the convent is in expanded Jerusalem. In 1967, when Israel annexed east Jerusalem, it significantly expanded the municipal borders.
Bethlehem Mayor Vera Baboun says that Cremisan is the last green space in the Bethlehem area. Families regularly picnic on the grounds and mass is held outside every Sunday.
“Where do you want to see Bethlehem in 30 years,” Mayor Vera Baboun asked the assembled European envoys? “Building the wall in this area will end the development and the sustainability of Bethlehem.”
Baboun said that the barrier, which Israel calls a “security fence” and Palestinians term an “apartheid wall”, has already increased emigration from Bethlehem, where 50 percent of the population is under the age of 29. The city has a poverty rate of 22 percent and an unemployment rate of 25 percent, both among the highest in the West Bank.
The route of the barrier is currently before the Israeli Supreme Court after Palestinians rejected several proposed compromises. Israeli officials say that even if the barrier is built here it is not a permanent border, and could be moved in the future. The state’s attorney told the Supreme Court that Israel would do everything possible to minimize the damage to the local population if the barrier is built to run through this area. Several Israeli officials were unavailable for comment.
According to Israel’s original plan, the Convent, and the nearby monastery were supposed to be on the Israeli side of the barrier once it was built. However, almost all of the students live on the Palestinian side, meaning they would have to cross an Israeli military checkpoint each day.
“That would mean the end of the school,” Raffoul Rofa, the Director of the Society of St. Yves, which has been fighting the plan in court told The Media Line. “Parents have already said they would not send their children here if they have to cross an Israeli checkpoint.”
Israel has suggested two different alternatives that would leave the Convent and the Monastery on the Palestinian side of the barrier, but would cut Beit Jala off from the green space, an option that local Palestinian officials reject.
A recent hearing on the case of Battir, a UNESCO heritage site, could provide grounds for optimism here. Battir, just a few miles down the road, faced a similar dilemma over the route of the barrier. In that case, the court froze the planned construction of the barrier after the Defense Ministry admitted it had run out of funds and that building in that area was not a security priority.
Here, too, residents hope that the court will rule in their favor. If not, they plan an international campaign to try to pressure Israel.