BEIT JALA, West Bank – Palestinians in this Christian village are hoping the new pope can succeed where others have failed — pressing Israel to drop plans to build a stretch of its West Bank separation barrier through their picturesque valley.
Since Vatican properties are affected, residents have appealed to the Roman Catholic Church to use more of its significant influence in the Holy Land to reroute the barrier, even as local Catholic leaders hold a special protest Mass in threatened orchards each week.
The Vatican has called on Israel not to seize the lands, but local Palestinian Catholics want the new pontiff to lean more heavily on Israel.
"We have hope in the new pope, as he is close to the poor and the oppressed," said the Rev. Ibrahim Shomali, the Palestinian priest who has been leading the protests.
Israel has been building the barrier since 2002 in response to a wave of suicide bombings early last decade that killed hundreds of people. Israel says the barrier is needed to keep out Palestinian attackers.
Palestinians say the barrier is a land grab because it zigzags through the West Bank. When complete, nearly 10 percent of the West Bank, including many Israeli settlements, would lie on Israel's side, according to the United Nations. Roughly two-thirds of the 700 kilometer (450-mile) structure has been built.
Beit Jala is a postcard-pretty Christian town of 16,000 in the overwhelmingly Muslim West Bank. The likeness of the Palestinian patron, Saint George, is carved into building facades. Groceries sell beer and butchers sell pork, items banned under Islamic law. A bowling alley faces an Israeli military base.
Yet the village feels hemmed in. It abuts the biblical town of Bethlehem on one side. On another, barbed wire separates Beit Jala from the Jewish settlement of Har Gilo. Part of the separation barrier seals in another side, protecting a nearby road used by Jewish settlers. Residents say the planned stretch of construction will close off one of the village's last remaining open spaces.
"They are crowding us inside a ghetto," sighed Issa Khalilieh, whose family lost 12 acres (five hectares) in years of Israeli confiscations, and is poised to lose another three acres (one hectare) to the barrier.
An Israeli defense official said Jerusalem would remain "open and vulnerable" if the section isn't built. He noted that during the height of violence a decade ago, militants fired at nearby Gilo from Beit Jala. Although the fighting has quieted, he said Palestinians now use the valley to sneak into Israel to work. The official spoke anonymously under ministry policy.
In the Beit Jala area, Israel's Defense Ministry plans to seize some 790 acres (320 hectares) of the Cremisan Valley, said lawyer Ghaith Nasser. Israel's Defense Ministry would not confirm how much land they intend to seize.
Some one-third of the land is Vatican-owned, with a monastery surrounded by pines, playground and vineyard that monks have used to make wine since 1882. Nearby is a convent where nuns run a school for 600 Palestinian students. Some 60 families own the rest, a series of terraced olive and apricot orchards plunging into the valley. Residents go there to relax, barbecue and pray.
If the route goes as planned, the monastery and orchards will be on Israel's side of the barrier. The convent and school will be on the Palestinian side, surrounded by high concrete walls, lawyers said.
Since January 2012, about two dozen people have gathered in the groves every Friday to pray to save their lands. George Abu Eid, whose family's five acres (two hectares) of olive and lemon orchards are threatened, said activists hope to build international support.
On a recent windy Friday, some two dozen worshippers gathered in a circle around Rev. Shomali, who used a cloth-covered table as a makeshift altar, held down with a crucifix. Palestinians and European Christian volunteers sang hymns. One woman read part of a Bible passage. Rev. Shomali reminded the congregation that Christians are obligated to help the oppressed.
Rev. Shomali's protest Mass isn't sanctioned by the church. Instead, he said he was making an honest Christian act of standing with people defending their land. He said the village plans to send a delegation to the Vatican to plead their case.
Residents have been challenging the project in court for years, and construction remains on hold pending a ruling. A Catholic legal aid group is assisting the court battle, and the Latin Patriarchate, which oversees local Catholic affairs, said it sympathizes with the residents. The Vatican signed an October letter that condemned the barrier's route and called on Israel to keep the Cremisan valley attached to Beit Jala.
Rev. Shomali and residents said the letter wasn't enough. They want the Vatican to either join their legal case or publically condemn Israel.
"If the church stands with us, we would have our land. Israel is scared of the church and her voice," said Rev. Shomali.
Yigal Palmor, spokesman for Israel's Foreign Ministry, said the government is in "direct dialogue" with the Vatican and affected monks and nuns in the area to try come to an amicable decision.
"We have been trying to make our case and reach an agreement on what would be possible," he said.
A senior church official confirmed discussions were underway with Israel. He spoke anonymously because he was not authorized to brief reporters.
The Palestinians seek all of the West Bank and east Jerusalem, territories captured by Israel in the 1967 Mideast war, as parts of a future state.
For years, they have staged marches in villages affected by the barrier, sometimes succeeding in altering the route of the barrier. An Israeli-Palestinian documentary on the fight of residents in the village of Bilin to reroute the barrier was nominated for an Oscar this year.
The route of the barrier has drawn accusations that Israel is using the structure to incorporate some Jewish settlements, how home to more than 500,000 Israelis, into its future borders.
"The barrier has a route that ... is clearly not defined by what Israel calls security reasons," said Aviv Tatarsky of Ir Amim, an advocacy group that monitors the route of the barrier around Jerusalem. "The planned route goes way into the West Bank to put the settlement blocs within its area."
Israeli governments have said that they intend to keep the main settlement blocs close to the old 1949 cease-fire line along the West Bank under a peace treaty, offering the Palestinians Israeli land in exchange, but negotiations have failed to produce an agreement.
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