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Palestinian Christians, police clash over barrier construction

Priests, activists protest continued building of security barrier near West Bank town of Beit Jala

Israeli border police arrest a Palestinian protester who was trying to reach tractors working on the construction of Israel's controversial barrier in the Cremisan Valley, which lies between Jerusalem and Beit Jala, August 19, 2015. (AFP Photo/Musa Al Shaer)
Israeli border police arrest a Palestinian protester who was trying to reach tractors working on the construction of Israel's controversial barrier in the Cremisan Valley, which lies between Jerusalem and Beit Jala, August 19, 2015. (AFP Photo/Musa Al Shaer)

Palestinian Christians scuffled with Israeli Border Police near Bethlehem on Wednesday after dozens of them, including priests, gathered to protest renewed work on Israel’s West Bank security barrier in a sensitive Christian area.

An AFP journalist said the protesters, who were joined by a few foreign activists, gathered in the Christian town of Beit Jala to protest building a stretch of the barrier, which started Monday after years of legal battles.

Three Roman Catholic priests tried to pray among olive trees that bulldozers and mechanical diggers were seeking to uproot. Police stopped the priests from approaching.

One demonstrator was arrested as he tried to plant an olive sapling in front of the excavators.

Police wrestled with protesters who chanted, “Israel is a terrorist state. It doesn’t scare us.”

Israel began building the barrier of walls and fences inside the West Bank in 2002 at the height of the second Palestinian intifada (uprising), saying it was crucial for security. Over 1,000 Israeli civilians were killed in suicide bombings and shooting attacks in the first two years of the intifada, attacks that diminished in number as the fence was built and extended across much of the seamline with Israel.

Israeli security forces stand guard as an Israeli excavator uproots olive trees to make way for the separation barrier, in the West Bank town of Beit Jala near the Jewish neighborhood of Gilo and the Palestinian town of Bethlehem on August 17, 2015. (Flash90)
Israeli security forces stand guard as an Israeli excavator uproots olive trees to make way for the separation barrier, in the West Bank town of Beit Jala near the Jewish neighborhood of Gilo and the Palestinian town of Bethlehem on August 17, 2015. (Flash90)

The Palestinians see it as a land grab aimed at stealing part of their future state – it stretches around settlement blocs and in some places closes in Palestinian villages or farmland – and often call it the “apartheid wall.”

The network of fences, concrete walls, trenches and closed military roads will extend 712 kilometers (442 miles) when finished, separating the West Bank from Israel, 85 percent of its length running through Palestinian land.

Where it approaches Beit Jala and the adjacent Cremisan Valley there has been fierce opposition from the local Christian community, which has enlisted papal support.

The case grabbed special attention when a section of wall was slated to separate Cremisan monastery from the neighboring convent and vineyards.

It would have also separated Palestinians in the nearby Christian village of Beit Jala from their olive groves.

Israel’s High Court of Justice ruled in April that the work must stop and told the government to consider alternative routes.

But, in a new decision on July 6, the court said work could go ahead, ruling that the previous ban referred only to an area of a few hundred meters alongside the monastery and the convent.

The people of Beit Jala were surprised Monday when Israeli bulldozers started uprooting olive trees east of the convent and monastery.

They are protesting against the confiscation of their land and the fragmentation of their lives and also fear that the path of the wall may herald expansion of the nearby Israeli settlement of Har Gilo and the southern Jerusalem neighborhood of Gilo, much of which lies over the Green Line.

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