As hearings in the High Court of Justice began Wednesday on a section of the security fence planned between Jerusalem and the Palestinian town of Beit Jala, Canada’s bishops’ conference joined the growing wave of official Catholic opposition to the proposed route, asking Canada’s Foreign Minister John Baird to “raise our objections about the extension of the security wall in the Cremisan Valley.”
The barrier through the ancient valley would “cut off some 58 Christian families from their agricultural land and some 400 impoverished children from their school,” wrote the president of Canadian Conference of Catholic Bishops, Paul-André Durocher, Catholic news agency Zenit reported Wednesday.
The Defense Ministry insists the barrier, whose construction began in 2002 during the bloody Second Intifada and which now snakes some 440 kilometers through the West Bank, is essential for Israeli security.
Durocher also wrote that the barrier would prevent the local Salesian Sisters nuns from serving Palestinian Christians. The planned route would “confiscate most of the convent’s property,” he wrote, placing the convent “in a military zone surrounded on three sides by towers, walls and wires and patrolled by armed soldiers.”
Durocher also claimed that the barrier would render a traditional May religious procession from Cremisan to Beit Jala impossible, as well as a Christmas procession beginning at the Monastery of Mar Elias.
The letter indicated that “Canada’s Catholic Bishops are aware of Israel’s need for security, and we fully support that right,” but expressed their belief that the route would “deepen the wounds between Israelis and Palestinians.”
Two separate cases against the West Bank barrier were heard by the High Court of Justice on Wednesday morning to decide whether to approve the Defense Ministry’s planned route or to heed a flurry of appeals by locals and activists who have requested it be changed.
If approved, the fence — in parts an eight-meter-high (25-foot) concrete wall — could cut through ancient irrigation systems relied upon by the West Bank village of Battir, separate residents of nearby Beit Jala from their olive groves, and divide a local Christian community.
The barrier would split the Roman Catholic Salesian order by leaving the monastery on the Israeli side and the convent in Palestinian territory. The order runs the Cremisan valley’s famous vineyards, which provide wine to churches throughout the Holy Land.
“The wall endangers all the people of Beit Jala, Christians and Muslims alike,” says Beit Jala’s parish priest Father Ibrahim al-Shamali, who has been holding weekly protest masses.
“It will affect Christians more because 99 percent of the land there belongs to some 58 Christian families…This could push the community to leave, because after losing their land they’ll have nothing to stay for.”
The Defense Ministry told AFP it had “taken into account all the requests of the different parties, especially the monastery,” in planning the route, without elaborating.
Another ministry official said the barrier’s planners met with Battir’s residents and tried to take their concerns into account. He said the barrier will not disrupt farming because an access gate will be open to Battir’s farmers three times a day. He spoke on condition of anonymity because of ongoing legal proceedings.
The Roman-era irrigation system in Battir channels water from natural springs down stone terraces and through sluice gates to water villagers’ orchards and gardens.
“The building of the wall will destroy parts of the water system that has been here for 2,500 years, including the stone channels that lead to the village,” said Akram Badr, head of the Battir village council.
Battir’s produce is a key source of income for the village, as is the tourism generated by the Roman irrigation system itself, a proposed UNESCO world heritage site that attracts Holy Land visitors and historians.
“The wall’s route will destroy the area and wreck an important historical site that still serves a crucial practical purpose for the people of Battir,” said Friends of the Earth Middle East’s Nader al-Khatib, warning it would inevitably lead to a loss of tourism.
Only 15 percent of the separation barrier is built along the Green Line, which is recognized by the international community as the border of Israel proper, according to figures from the UN humanitarian agency OCHA, with most of it jutting into the West Bank.
If completed as planned, the barrier will isolate 9.4 percent of the land in the West Bank and East Jerusalem, the agency says.
Two-thirds of Battir lies in Palestinian territory with the other third in Israel.
The villagers’ case has won the support of the Israel Nature and Parks Authority, which has said that building the barrier there would cause irreversible damage to the terraces.
Israelis living in settlements in the Gush Etzion bloc have also joined the campaign against the proposed route of the barrier, arguing that it would pollute water sources and damage local agriculture.
But the Defense Ministry denies it would have a significant effect on the irrigation system.
“The ministry … values the protection of both human life and the environment… However, (it) is committed first and foremost to maintaining the safety and security of the citizens of Israel,” it said in a statement.
“The route was relocated to an area where the impact on the terraces and the view will be most limited,” it said, adding that “only the first row of (water) terraces will be partially affected.”
The High Court adjourned Wednesday without setting a date for a ruling on the two appeals.