Pope Francis’s reference to “the State of Palestine” in his speech Sunday morning in Bethlehem, and his unscripted pause at the security barrier, left official Israel cold, and was seized upon by Palestinian leaders as deeply symbolic in recognizing their national rights.
Early Sunday, Francis became the first pope to tour the Palestinian territory without first entering Israel. En route from Jordan, Francis also made an unscheduled stop at the security barrier at Bethlehem, touching the concrete wall — in a section, moreover, where graffiti asserted a comparison with the Warsaw Ghetto — and bowing his head in apparent prayer. Later, during his speech at Manger Square, the Pope said the Israeli-Palestinian conflict had become “increasingly unacceptable.”
“The Vatican Pope stops at the racist wall in Bethlehem,” read the headline of an article published by the official Wafa news agency, calling the move “a spontaneous initiative” taken by the Pope moments after his meeting with PA President Mahmoud Abbas.
The Vatican’s decision to refer to the Palestinian Authority as “the State of Palestine,” and to Abbas as its president, however, was anything but spontaneous.
— Vatican News (@VaticanNews) May 25, 2014
Israel normally opposes references to “Palestine” as a state since its recognition as a non-member observer state by the UN in November 2012. In this case, however, Israel was plainly doing its best to play down the discomfort. Yigal Palmor, a spokesman for the Foreign Ministry in Jerusalem, told The Times of Israel that official Israel would not respond to the pontiff’s reference to “Palestine.” “This is a matter that has been discussed well in advance. There’s nothing new here,” Palmor said.
By contrast Ahmad Assaf, a spokesman for Abbas’s Fatah political movement, insisted that the Pope’s aerial route from Jordan was pre-planned precisely to honor the Palestinians at Israel’s expense. “The Pope … reached Palestine through Jordanian airspace in a private jet. He did not cross Israeli airspace, honoring and affirming Palestinian rights,” Assaf told Mawtini radio station, Fatah’s website reported.
Posting the photo of Francis at the security barrier on Facebook from his exile in the United Arab Emirates, former Fatah official and Gaza strongman Mohammed Dahlan wrote that the image “sent a message to all humanity that the human conscience cannot come to terms with the painful reality of our Palestinian people; the last people on earth under the yoke of occupation.”
Through his symbolic gesture, argued Dahlan (sentenced last week in absentia to two years in prison for defaming Palestinian security forces), the Pope was also telling Palestinian prisoners that “you and your people are prisoners. Your terrible plight occupies our minds and pains us.”
The Pope’s visit to the Palestinian territories must not only be celebrated, Dahlan continued, but also utilized for Palestinian public relations, “especially after his holiness witnessed with his own eyes the catastrophe of an entire people; a people which continues to walk in the footsteps of the Messiah on the road of Golgotha.”
Nimer Hammad, an adviser to Abbas, used the Pope’s visit to encourage Christian tourism to the Palestinian territories. Responding to Arab calls to boycott Jerusalem as long as it remains under Israeli control, he urged tourists to give their business to Palestinians, not to Israel.
“They should stay with us, not arrive in Bethlehem and then sleep in Eilat or Tel Aviv,” Hammad told Palestinian TV on Saturday. “They should support the Palestinian economy given the attempt of the Israeli occupation to destroy our economy.”
While West Bank media highlighted the Pope’s every move throughout the Palestinian territories, Hamas media in Gaza barely mentioned the visit.
If Sunday was a day that delighted the Palestinians with its symbolism, however, Monday will be the Pope’s Israel day, with visits to the Western Wall, the Yad Vashem Holocaust memorial, and meetings with Israel’s prime minister and president.
The Palestinians may need to swallow overtures no less meaningful toward the Jewish people and their state, as the first Pope to speak of the “State of Palestine” becomes the first pope to honor the founder of modern Zionism, laying a wreath at the grave of Theodor Herzl in Jerusalem.