Middle East

Palestinian Christians urge help against West Bank barrier

Palestinian Christians holding mass at Beit Jala
Image caption The open-air mass was held to highlight opposition to the barrier

Palestinian Christians are appealing for international support to oppose renewed construction of part of Israel's West Bank barrier.

Residents of Beit Jala - a town along the planned barrier route - made the appeal at an open-air mass among centuries-old olive trees on Friday.

They have also been waging a long legal battle, backed by the Vatican.

The barrier will separate over 50 families from their land - but Israel says it is a vital security measure.

An earlier attempt to pray at the site of Friday's mass had resulted in scuffles between Israeli border police and worshippers and priests.

At the start of the week, Israel's defence ministry began to prepare an area at the entrance to the Cremisan Valley for an expansion of the barrier.

Locals protested as some of the trees were removed by bulldozers and others were cut down.

Image copyright AFP
Image caption Palestinian protesters have clashed with Israeli forces in the Cremisan valley

The mayor of Beit Jala has written to diplomats from the European Union and the United States, asking them to put political pressure on Israel not to continue.

"We want people outside to come and say 'enough is enough'," says the mayor, Nicola Khamis. "Christians all over the world must stop being silent."

"What Israel is doing here is against peace. It will prevent a two-state solution [to the conflict]."

Last year, Pope Francis met residents who stand to lose access to their land in the Cremisan Valley, when he visited nearby Bethlehem.

Foreign dignitaries have also expressed their concerns to Israeli authorities, listing the separation barrier among pressures that are pushing Christians to leave the Holy Land.

Israel says the barrier is needed in the valley as a security measure to protect the Jewish settlements of Gilo and Har Gilo.

Settlements are considered illegal under international law, although Israel disagrees.

Image copyright AFP
Image caption Bulldozers have been used to remove olive trees along the barrier route

Construction of the Israeli barrier began in 2002, during the second Palestinian intifada or uprising, after a series of suicide attacks.

In the Beit Jala area, at this time, there was shooting at the settlements.

Palestinians believe the ultimate aim of the barrier - which includes stretches of high concrete walls and barbed-wire fences - is to grab land.

Much of it has been built inside the occupied West Bank on land Palestinians want for a future independent state.

In April, Israel's High Court appeared to rule against proposed routes for the barrier in the Cremisan Valley, a local beauty spot filled with olive groves and orchards.

However, the court later said this prevented work only in a small area near a Salesian convent and school, and a monastery and winery.

Local church leaders - Latin Catholic and Greek Orthodox - have been involved in the campaign to prevent the construction of the barrier.

"When you kill the olive trees, you kill the people here," said the Catholic priest, Faisal Hijazin, during the mass. "We pray for God to protect the olive trees, the land and the people."