Opinions divided by legal barrier

Israel’s security wall is stalled by a court ruling, writes Paul Keenan

One must wonder how many of the observers of events taking place at Israel’s Supreme Court on January 29 mentally referred to the Old Testament tale of Joshua and the Walls of Jericho once they heard the court’s ruling.

On that date, the long legal battle staged on behalf of the community of Beit Jala and the Cremisan Valley reached a new chapter when the court ordered the immediate postponement of Israel’s security barrier and its snaking path across the area.

While a better outcome than many sceptics had thought possible in this final appeal against the barrier, the ruling at the same time is not the great crumbling of the wall longed for by many. The threat to the male and female Salesian communities living and ministering in the valley close to Bethlehem – and the 58 families whose livelihoods were set to be affected – has merely been ‘postponed’ at this point and, given the ever increasing turbulence across the Middle East, there is little reason to believe that Israel will not join the final blocks of the barrier when barriers legal are removed.

The Jericho allusion, however, serves to illustrate the great din of voices that have been raised against the wall as the court action moved towards the January ruling (and perhaps even played a part in stalling its construction).

Chorus of bishops

The latest of these voices was the chorus of Catholic bishops (including Ireland’s Bishops William Crean and Denis Nulty) who travelled to the Holy Land earlier in the month as part of the Holy Land Co-ordination to view for themselves the pressures currently affecting Christian communities in Gaza, Israel and the West Bank. Touring the Cremisan Valley, the prelates were afforded the opportunity to see the geographical reality of the valley, the routes undertaken by residents to their fields and olive groves, the pathways followed by the 400 students studying at the Salesian convent, the physical distance between monastery and convent, and the Jewish enclave of Gilo on the outskirts of East Jerusalem which would be afforded greater security by the Cremisan portion of the barrier cutting across these.

Following that visit, and ahead of the court hearing, the bishops issued their own appeal to Israel on behalf of Cremisan and Beit Jala.

Going as far as to propose the Cremisan wall should be “abandoned”, the bishops stated: “We met with many families from Beit Jala during our recent visit to the Holy Land. We heard of their pain and anguish. They are faced with the threatened loss of their land and livelihood as the planned security wall will destroy vineyards, groves and orchards and separate them from their land.”

Fully acknowledging the right of Israel to “security and secure borders”, the bishops further point out that “the planned route of the security wall deviates sharply from the Green Line, the internationally-recognised demarcation line separating Israel and the territories captured in the Six-Day War of 1967. More than three quarters of the wall’s planned route falls outside the Green Line and is illegal according to a landmark advisory opinion of the International Court of Justice, while also a flagrant breach of the Geneva Convention and the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.”


To a greater or lesser degree, the international bishops were joined by other calls for abandonment or rethink, notably by the Canadian Conference of Catholic Bishops, Pax Christi, and US Bishop Bishop Richard Pates, a member of the Co-ordination group who, in his role as chairman of the Committee on International Justice and Peace of the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops, wrote to Secretary of State John Kerry to decry the “injustice” of the Cremisan plan and to call on Mr Kerry to “urge the government of Israel to cease and desist in its efforts to unnecessarily confiscate Palestinian lands in the Occupied West Bank”.

Finally, on January 24, the weekly open air Mass which has long been celebrated by Fr Ibrahim Shomali outside the Salesian monastery at Beit Jala was joined by ambassadors and representatives of countries including , France, Italy, Brazil, Spain, Chile, Slovenia, Portugal, Ireland, Sweden, Malta, Britain and the European Union in a show of solidarity.

But what of such voices, critics will be quick to respond, when has Israel shown itself willing to listen to voices critical of its policies?

Allowing for the image of a nation apparently only able to listen to its own ‘inner voice’, it must be pointed out that some of the most significant testimony in court against the current Cremisan route came from Israeli voices, and Israeli military voices at that.

According to a release posted by the Society of St Yves, the human rights group backing the Cremsian court action, the legal representatives appointed for the Salesians and their neighbours introduced to the court Shaul Arieli, a retired Israeli Defence Forces colonel who is now a member of the Council of Peace and Security, an NGO which brings together experts in diplomacy and security towards creating peace. Arieli proceeded to champion an alternative route for the Cremisan wall which would, he contended, do less harm to the local communities while simultaneously serving Israel’s security needs better. Further yet, Arieli’s opinion was, according to St Yves, co-signed by “four major generals, two brigadier generals, one colonel, and a police superintendent”.  

Counter arguments were also heard on the day, but in the end, the court followed the middle path, presumably to allow for further evaluation of Arieli’s proposal.

And thus, the residents of Cremisan have been offered a lifeline of sorts. How long the gap in the wall stays open remains to be seen as hawks and doves continue to lobby on either side over a ruling that is by no means definitive.

For the Cremisan barrier, the writing is not yet on the wall.