Hopes for the visit of Pope Benedict XVI
Although Benedict XVI has stated that the primary purpose of his visit is as a pilgrim, Father Artham Hijazin, Principal of Al-Ahliyyah College in Ramallah, feels this visit is inevitably political: “We can’t avoid it. It’s not an easy visit and you can’t expect only a spiritual or social visit. It is a political visit from the Israeli and the Palestinian sides because both are looking to have the Pope on their side…for us, Palestinians are the victims because they are occupied people…The situation is very bad here for Palestinians and for Christians, especially since the checkpoints and the wall, so they expect a lot from His Holiness.”
The Vatican supports a two-state solution, which Netanyahu has refused to consider. Benedict XVI in his first speech on arrival in Israel, given at Tel Aviv’s Ben Gurion airport, called for “a just resolution of outstanding difficulties so that both peoples may live in peace in a homeland of their own within secure and internationally recognized borders.”: Netanyahu, who was in the audience, rejects the possibility of a Palestinian homeland and ignores internationally recognised borders.
Although the Israeli government cannot hope for the Pope to support its policies regarding Palestine, the huge presence of international media surrounding the Pope’s visit provides a political opportunity of another kind. For the Palestinians this is an opportunity for Benedict XVI and the international media who accompany him to witness first hand the situation in Palestine. The Israeli government will be hoping that high-profile meetings between Israeli leaders and the Pope in front of the international media will improve its reputation and promote its credibility. This is especially important at the present time, as the Israeli government’s reputation suffers from accusations of war crimes in Gaza by human rights organisations such as Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch, and by the UN Special Rapporteur for Human Rights in the Palestinian Territories, Richard Falk.
The Israeli government has launched a website (popeinisrael.org.il) in eight languages dedicated to the Papal visit which provides live broadcasts of events, transcripts of speeches, and information for journalists. The website advertises two media centres, “the biggest and most advanced center ever built in the country” in Jerusalem, and another in Nazareth. The International Press Center in Jerusalem will be hosting briefings for journalists from the Foreign Ministry, the Prime Ministers Office, the Israeli Police and the Mayor of Jerusalem as part of an extensive public relations campaign. An official Palestinian Media Centre was set up at the Ambassador Hotel in East Jerusalem; however on Monday Israeli police and intelligence forces shut the centre down by order of the Israeli Internal Security Minister. The Jerusalem Centre for Social and Economic Rights described the closure of the Palestinian Media Centre as a violation of press freedom and a restriction on civil activities, and called for the government to reverse the order. This recalls the Israeli public relations strategy during the Gaza offensive which saw international journalists banned from the Gaza strip from November 2008. This ban continued during, and after, the Israeli attack despite a supreme court ruling ordering Israel to allow the international press access to Gaza.
In his welcoming speech to Pope Benedict XVI on Monday, President Shimon Peres declared that “Israel safeguards the absolute freedom of religious practice and free access to holy places. We are always happy to receive pilgrims from throughout the world in the Holy Land”. However for Palestinian Christians living under occupation Israeli-issued permits must be obtained to visit their holy shrines in Jerusalem and Nazareth. Many Palestinian Christians living in the West Bank were refused permits to attend yesterday’s Mass lead by the Pope at the Garden of Gethsemane. Israel granted 93 permits to Gazan Christians to attend the Mass, but refused permits to more than 400. Israel cited security reasons for refusing permits to all Gazans below the age of 35. Further, Israel controls access to Bethlehem and it is very difficult for Christians outside the West Bank to obtain visas to visit or to study there. Even Palestinians within the West Bank have to pass through checkpoints to go there. Father Hijazin, a Jordanian, was illegal in the West Bank for some time as the Israeli authorities refused to grant him a visa.
Although the Vatican refused requests for Benedict XVI to visit Gaza, today Benedict XVI will visit Bethlehem and Al-Aida refugee camp in the West Bank. As Israel has banned any Palestinian official activity in Jerusalem, this will be the only opportunity for the Palestinian Authority to coordinate events.
In Al-Aida refugee camp a stone amphi-theatre was converted into a stage for the Pope to speak from, using funds from the Palestine Authority. Following visits from Vatican Officials, it was decided that the Pope would speak from a local UNRWA school instead, and Palestinian workers were issued an Israeli order to stop work on the stage. The stage was located in front of the wall separating Israel from its occupied territory, and in the shadow of a watchtower. However the wall, branded illegal by the International Courts of Justice, will inevitably be visible to Benedict XVI as it runs within metres of the Al-Aida refugee camp; in order to enter Bethlehem Benedict XVI will have to pass through a checkpoint in the wall. Illegal Israeli settlements can also be seen from Al-Aida refugee camp: Father Hijazin explains that here, Benedict XVI will see “the difference between the lives of the occupied people and their occupiers”
The political situation will also be unavoidable in Bethlehem. A recent study by the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA) into the effect of Israeli measures on Palestinians in the West Bank found that only 13% of Bethlehem is available for use by Palestinians, and much of this is fragmented. Furthermore 66% of the Bethlehem governate is designated area C: it is under Israeli military jurisdiction, and Israel security forces control all planning and construction. Large tracts of this land are military areas and fire zones, and nature reserves, where Palestinian entry and usage is restricted or forbidden. OCHA found that the wall has weakened religious, historic, economic and cultural connections between Bethlehem and East Jerusalem. Israel claims to have built the wall to protect the security of Israelis yet, in the Bethlehem governate alone, 86000 Israelis have been settled in 19 settlements and 16 settlement outposts within the wall since 1967. OCHA predicts that the completion of the wall will further devastate the Bethlehem governate.
The spokesman for the Israeli foreign ministry Andy David has stated that “Trying to use the visit to emphasize disputes, we think, is not the right way to treat the pope’s visit.” However for Father Hijazin, this visit is a chance to ask Israel “only to give us our freedom, to give us our liberty so all Palestinians can go to our Holy Shrines without a permit…to give justice to the Palestinian people. They are human beings and they have suffered from occupation for many many years. Our justice here is dignity for all people, the Palestinians and the Israelis; without justice nothing will be done in this land, only hatred and violence against both sides”.