“What do we do? We pray,” said Father Ibrahim Shomali to the crowd assembled in an olive grove in the West Bank town of Beit Jala. “Because we believe in God and we believe that one day he will hear our prayer and he will give us justice.”
Every Friday for more than two years, come sunshine, rain or even snow, Father Shomali, a local Catholic priest, has led a Mass as a form of nonviolent resistance against the Israeli separation barrier threatening to divide the Cremisan monastery and a valley of olive groves from the rest of Beit Jala. Organized by Palestinian Christians, this unique witness has welcomed activists and community leaders of all faiths, international church leaders, diplomats and journalists.
“What the church is doing is being church,” says Father Shomali, anticipating those who would question such activism. “Church is a church when it’s near people, and especially the poor people. And the poor people are not only the people who need food. It is also people who need justice.”
A legal appeal by local landowners against the wall’s route went to the Israeli Supreme Court in January, which ordered Israel’s State Attorney to provide more evidence as to why dividing Cremisan is necessary. In other villages in the West Bank, Palestinian activism and legal action have succeeded in altering the barrier’s route. (See the films Budrus and Five Broken Cameras.)
A final hearing in the case is scheduled for July. But regardless of any Israeli court decision, the International Court of Justice ruled in 2004 that the construction of the wall in occupied Palestinian territory is contrary to international law. In Beit Jala, as with 85 percent of its route, the barrier would take more Palestinian land instead of separating the West Bank from Israel on the internationally recognized border, or Green Line.
Israel says the barrier is needed for security. Many believe the wall stopped suicide bombings, the last of which occurred in February 2008. At that time, these and other acts of violence by Palestinians had killed 1,012 Israelis since October 2000. During the same period, Israelis killed 4,536 Palestinians.
But, as this case illustrates, only two-thirds of the wall’s planned route has been built. Every day, tens of thousands of Palestinian workers lacking hard-to-get Israeli permits pass through the barrier’s remaining gaps in order to avoid checkpoints. Suicide bombers could enter just as easily, indicating that, as former Israeli Defense Minister Moshe Arens told an Israeli newspaper, “It’s clear there is no connection between the wall and the cessation of attacks.”
In Beit Jala, says Father Shomali, “The wall is being used to link the settlements of Gilo and Har Gilo, consolidating the Israeli annexation of our land.” Covering the hilltops on either side of the monastery, they too are illegal according to international law, as are all settlements in the occupied Palestinian territories. These two settlements already occupy 778 acres of Beit Jala land, according the Applied Research Institute Jerusalem, a Mennonite Central Committee partner. Were the barrier built as planned, this majority Christian town would lose a total of 1,649 acres, isolating 47 percent of its land behind the wall.
“When we decided to celebrate this holy Mass every Friday afternoon, at the hour of the death of our Lord Jesus Christ, we thought that we are alone,” said Father Shomali at the last vigil before January’s Supreme Court hearing. “The idea came from Jesus who was in Gethsemane, praying alone.
“Today, this feeling is over, because we are not alone. All of you are with us. What you are doing is the presence of John and Mary who were under the cross with Jesus. So you are here with us and with him.”
Ryan Rodrick Beiler is a service worker with Mennonite Central Committee in Palestine and Israel. He blogs at mccpalestine.wordpress.com.