“I ask you once again to urge the Government of Israel to cease and desist in its efforts to unnecessarily confiscate Palestinian lands in the Occupied West Bank,” Bishop Richard Pates of Des Moines wrote Jan. 28 to John Kerry, the U.S. Secretary of State.
Earlier in the month, Bishop Pates, along with 13 other bishops, had visited the West Bank and the Gaza Strip in a mission of solidarity with the Palestinian people. They visited Bethlehem in the West Bank, and the Cremisan Valley, where a proposed Israeli security barrier would cut off the access of 58 Christian families from the land by which they earn their livelihood.
“As I stood amidst the beauty of this agricultural valley and heard the testimony of the Christian families whose lands, livelihoods, and centuries-old family traditions are threatened, I was simply astounded by the injustice of it all."
He called the situation in the Cremisan Valley “a microcosm of a protracted pattern that has serious implications for the ongoing Israeli-Palestinian conflict,” adding that it threatens Kerry's “commendable efforts to achieve a peace agreement.”
Bishop Pates' letter came a day before the Israeli supreme court heard a case about the route of the proposed Israeli security wall. The wall would either cut through the Cremisan Valley or through Battir, a Palestinian village located on the armistice line which functions as the Israeli border.
The case was brought by the Society of St. Yves, a Catholic human rights group under the patronage of the Latin Patriarchate of Jerusalem, on behalf of a Salesian convent and school located in the Cremisan Valley.
If the barrier is constructed in the Cremisan Valley, it will affect agricultural workers as well as children who will be cut off from their school.
The construction of the barrier is believed to be linked to the protection of Israeli settlements in the Palestinian territory of the West Bank; some 500,000 Jews currently live in more than 100 West Bank settlements, according to the BBC. Under international law, the settlements are considered illegal, though Israel disputes this.
Bishop Pates attached a statement from the bishops with whom he visited Israel and Palestine, the Co-ordination of Bishops' Conferences in Support of the Church in the Holy Land. The Holy Land Co-ordination was founded in 1998 at the request of the Holy See, and includes bishops from North America, Europe, and South Africa.
In the West Bank, the bishops visited three neighboring Christian towns, Bethlehem, Beit Jala, and Beit Sahour.
While the bishops recognized Israel's right “to security and secure borders,” they said the plan “to build a security wall on the land of 58 Christian families should be abandoned.”
“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.”
They noted the planned route of the security barrier “deviates sharply” from the internationally-recognized “Green Line” demarcating Israel from the West Bank: over 75 percent of the proposed route falls outside this line, and inside Palestinian land.
According to the bishops, this route is illegal under an advisory opinion of the International Court of Justice and breaches the Geneva Convention and the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.
“We urge our governments to encourage Israel to follow international law,” the bishops of the Holy Land Co-ordination wrote.
“Our deep concern, as we have repeatedly stated is that this planned security wall is more about consolidating the settlement areas and permanently choking off Bethlehem from Jerusalem. This particular plan is a microcosm of the tragic situation in the Holy Land which incites resentment and mistrust, making the possibility of a much-needed solution less likely.”
The bishops also encouraged Israel to “respect the livelihoods” of the Christian families in the towns surrounding Bethlehem, that the people of Beit Jala would “be protected from further expropriation of their land and homes by Israel.”
“Our prayers are with the people of Beit Jala as they seek justice. We offer them also for all who seek a just peace in the Holy Land.”
The U.S. bishops' international justice and peace representative has called on the state department to pressure the Israeli government to cease its efforts to confiscate Palestinian land in the West Bank.
Holy Land Co-ordination, Bethlehem, Beit Jala, Beit Sahour