BEIT JALA, West Bank (Ma’an) — After a seven-year legal battle, a group of Palestinian landowners and Catholic nuns this week lost an appeal against Israel building its separation barrier on their land.
The ruling by an Israeli appeals committee places the lush Cremisan Valley, in a northern corner of Bethlehem, behind the Israeli wall.
Running straight through Vatican-owned land, the route of this section of the wall also places the position of the Catholic hierarchy under uncomfortable scrutiny.
The proposed construction will also cut off 58 Palestinians in Beit Jala, a predominantly Christian suburb of Bethlehem, from their fields. They launched a legal challenge in 2006.
Throughout the case, both sides tried to demonstrate that the church was behind them, aided by the fact that the church’s position was far from coherent. The Catholic Church in the West Bank lent support to the appeal, the local monastery equivocated, while the Vatican kept quiet.
But as the landowner, the Vatican is still the key player. Israeli officials insist the Vatican agreed to their initial route for the wall, which put both the monastery and convent of the Salesian order on the Israel-controlled side. The Vatican denies the church ever made a deal.
After the nuns belatedly joined the case saying Israel had misrepresented their position, the committee adopted a compromise position.
Wednesday’s ruling keeps the convent and the school they run for Palestinian children on the West Bank side of the wall. But it will be surrounded on three sides, and the nuns will have to pass through a gate controlled by the Israeli military to access the monastery, which the nuns reject.
In its final stages, the monks also expressed support for the Cremisan sisters’ legal challenge. Yet to the end, Israel’s attorneys insisted that there was no pressure from higher Catholic powers to keep the separation barrier off church land.
When Israel started planning a barrier to surround the West Bank in the aftermath of the second intifada, Israeli military official Col. Danny Tirza was tasked with negotiating the route with church officials.
Tirza insists he secured explicit Vatican agreement before drawing the route through the Cremisan Valley.
He says that in 2003, he met Pietro Sambi, then the Vatican’s Apostolic Nuncio to Israel and representative in Palestine, to discuss various church properties along the barrier route. Sambi personally asked them to put Vatican properties on the Israeli side, Tirza said.
The Israeli official, who retired in 2007, said he also traveled to Vatican City to discuss the maps in detail with the deputy secretary of state at the Vatican.
In both meetings, the Vatican was “delighted” with the outcome and agreed on an “exact line” for the barrier in Cremisan, Tirza said.
He admits that the Cremisan Salesians expressed some concerns.
The Vatican delegation to Jerusalem and Palestine refused to confirm or deny Tirza’s account or any other aspect of the Cremisan case.
“Our position remains the same as the beginning. We have nothing to say on this case,” an official at the delegation, who did not identify himself, told Ma’an.
But in one public comment on the issue, in 2012, the Vatican representative signed a statement denying any “explicit or implicit agreement” between church bodies and Israel on the wall.
The church “therefore strongly (calls) on the State of Israel to restrain from its plan to separate Cremisan valley from Bethlehem,” the Assembly of Catholic Ordinaries’ communiqué read.
Trying to stay out of politics
Before 2012, the church was less forthcoming. It took years for the nuns and monks to get on board, and in public statements, the Salesians said they had not asked to be on one side or the other.
“Salesians do not get involved in issues and decisions to determine boundaries between the two States,” a 2009 communiqué said.
“We do not intend to address the issue of (the) Wall, because we do not recognize its legitimacy,” the statement said, referencing a 2004 International Court of Justice ruling that the barrier is illegal.
“They refer to international law, and that they are against the wall in principle, but that is not enough,” a Palestinian Christian activist complained to Ma’an.
The ambiguity arises from the Vatican’s principled opposition to the Israeli wall, but simultaneous insistence it will not take a political stance on territorial issues, such as where the route should go.
The church has no interest in being seen to take sides. The Vatican is a significant landowner tied in long negotiations with Israel over the status of its properties. At the same time, it is trying to support its Palestinian members, part of the dwindling Christian presence in the Holy Land.
Getting behind the case
In October 2010, the nuns broke from the monastery and joined the Palestinian petition, saying their wishes had been misrepresented by the Israeli army.
Running a popular school for Palestinian children, the nuns were deeply concerned “the school ground could easily become a battle ground,” their lawyer said.
The following year, local Catholic priests and activists started organizing a weekly mass overlooking Cremisan to highlight opposition to the wall. The Salesian monks were repeatedly invited but declined to join, activists say.
In November 2011, the Palestinian president’s office summoned the Vatican envoy, and the Palestinian Authority foreign minister wrote to his Vatican counterpart, to solicit support for the case.
The Salesian monastery responded with a rehash of the communiqués denying any deal with Israel. But two months later they reissued the statement, giving their first unequivocal support to the Palestinian case. In 2012, the monks testified in support of the nuns and Palestinian landowners.
How the nuns and the monks came around is a matter of debate. Manal Hazzan-Abu Sinni, the nuns’ lawyer, said their testimony was evidence that the Israeli army had simply lied about having the church’s support.
The monks’ lawyer, Nihad Ershid, said they were “not interested in giving any information to any journalist.” Neither would the Palestinians’ lawyer be drawn into discussing the church’s about face. “We had lots of problems with the church for many years … I don’t want to say more,” he told Ma’an.
Israeli authorities say the church is under pressure from the Palestinian Authority, while the Salesian monks say Israeli government pressure was actually the problem, when they were trying not to get involved.
Local activists say the weekly Christian demonstrations shamed the Vatican into instructing the order to take a clear and united stance.
“The monks live in a completely different world, dealing within their own structures. They just thought it would pass by,” a human rights activist close to the case told Ma’an.
A spokeswoman for the Society of St Yves, the Catholic rights group representing the Salesian nuns, said the church eventually weighing in had unnerved Israel’s stance.
“They thought they were just taking land from 58 landowners and six old nuns — not anymore,” she said.
Palestinian lawyers are planning an appeal to Israel’s Supreme Court.
Just say the word
Despite the eventual challenge by the monks and nuns, Israel has continued to maintain that the Vatican was not concerned about the wall on its land.
Israel’s state attorney assured the judge last year that neither the foreign nor defense ministries were worried that the case would harm their relations with the Vatican, and were happy for it to proceed.
The attorney argued at a final hearing in February that if the Vatican was concerned, it would have joined the petition itself. The Palestinians’ advocate countered that as a state, the Vatican would not join an Israeli legal process to express its views.
Hanna Amira, a member of the Palestinian presidential committee on Christian affairs, said the Vatican raised the issue with Israel but had not reached a common position. With the election of a new pope, both sides are looking for a stronger stance.
Israeli President Shimon Peres will visit Pope Francis next week. On Friday, Palestinians and Catholic supporters gathered again in the Cremisan Valley to protest the ruling.
“The church is an important owner of land and they have a lot of influence. Therefore there could be a lot of impact if they take on our cause,” senior Palestinian official Nabil Shaath told Ma’an at a solidarity service.
“If the Vatican wants its words to be heard, it will be heard. It depends how much it wants to publicly help our cause.”
By: Charlotte Alfred