"The Purpose of Our Prayer Is Peace in This Land"
Palestinian Christians live in hope that the walls of hatred and separation will fall down.
by Ryan Rodrick Beiler
Advent makes us wait. But at least we know when it will end. For children it drags on slowly. For adults it flies by all too fast. But those who first waited for the Messiah didn't know when their answer would come. No four weeks of candles. No candy-filled calendar.
This Advent, Palestinian Christians still living in the region of Jesus' birth are again waiting for what they hope is good news. They don't know when their answer will come. For years, they've been fighting a court battle against the Israeli separation wall that threatens to divide their town of Beit Jala, just west of Bethlehem. If built as planned, the barrier would cut off the Cremisan Catholic monastery and a valley of olive groves from the rest of the town.
The last hearing in their case took place before the Israeli Supreme Court on November 30: The first day of Advent. At least the Israeli government seems to have a sense of liturgy.
But regardless of any Israeli court decision, the International Court of Justice issued its advisory opinion in 2004 that building the wall in occupied Palestinian territory violates international law. In Beit Jala, as in 85% of its planned route, the barrier divides Palestinian territory inside the West Bank rather than being built on the internationally recognized border, or Green Line.
Local residents have petitioned higher courts as well. For the last three years—in sun, rain, and snow—they have held weekly prayer vigils in the olive groves that lie in barrier's path.
"The purpose of our prayer is peace in this land," says Father Ibrahim Shomali, a Catholic priest who has led many of the vigils over the years. "Churches all over the world are united with us in prayer, because they believe that our case is just."
Though organized by local clergy, the vigil has welcomed activists and community leaders of all faiths, as well as foreign diplomats, church leaders, and journalists. The prayerful protest has garnered further attention through reports by BBC, CNN and NPR.
"I understand the suffering," says Israeli Pastor Oded Shoshani of the Messianic congregation King of Kings in Jerusalem, expressing a common attitude toward the barrier. "These things represent an unpleasant reality." But he adds, "It wasn't built with a huge and massive expense just for the sake of repressing the Palestinian people. It was built for the defense of the people of Israel."
Shoshani, who was educated as a mechanical engineer, says statistics prove the barrier works: "Between 2000 and 2005 almost 1,200 Jews were murdered by suicide bombers. After 2005 the numbers dropped by something like 99%. It's as simple as that."
Jews weren't the only ones to suffer during the Second Intifada, or Palestinian uprising, which began in 2000 against Israel's military occupation. The Israeli human rights organization B'Tselem, which tracks fatalities on both sides, reports that by the time of the last suicide bombing in February 2008, Israelis had killed 4,536 Palestinians.
Though most Israelis would agree with Shoshani, what many don't seem to realize is that the barrier is still only about two-thirds complete, as gaps in places like Beit Jala demonstrate. As early as 2006, the Israeli newspaper Haaretz was reporting that, according to police sources:
The security fence is no longer mentioned as the major factor in preventing suicide bombings, mainly because the terrorists have found ways to bypass it. The fence does make it harder for them, but the flawed inspection procedures at its checkpoints, the gaps, and uncompleted sections enable suicide bombers to enter Israel.
The same report credits Israeli forces' improved ability to foil attacks, but cites Palestinian militant groups' agreement to stop such attacks as the main reason for decreased violence.
"There's no problem crossing the gaps in the fence, and tens of thousands of illegal workers cross it back and forth every day, and there should be no problem getting suicide bombers through with them," admits Israeli pro-barrier activist Ilan Tsi'on, co-founder of "A Fence for Life." "So why don't they? Because that's the Palestinians' choice. … So in fact, our security is really an illusion."
"It's obvious today that the separation wall is completely useless. It's damaging Israel in the international arena, and it causes hardship for the Palestinians in their day-to-day lives," former Israeli Defense Minister Moshe Arens told another Israeli newspaper. Though he was once convinced of the barrier's necessity, he now says, "Today it's clear there is no connection between the wall and the cessation of attacks."
Rather than security, says Father Shomali, in Beit Jala, "the wall is being used to link the settlements of Gilo and Har Gilo, consolidating the Israeli annexation of our land."
Covering nearby hilltops, these settlements are considered illegal under international law, as are all settlements in the occupied Palestinian territories. These two settlements have already occupied 778 acres of Beit Jala land, according to the Applied Research Institute Jerusalem (ARIJ). Were the barrier built as planned, the town would lose a total of 1,649 acres, isolating 47% of its land behind the wall.
"As Palestinian Christians we believe that we are the living stones of this area," says Beit Jala's mayor, Dr. Nael Salman. "Cutting off our way of living and our resources means that this will lead to higher migration."
"Israel tries to portray the conflict in Palestine and Israel as a religious conflict between the Judeo-Christian tradition and Islam," says Dr. Munther Isaac of Bethlehem Bible College. "Yes, Christians are persecuted in Syria and Iraq by Muslims. But in Palestine, our biggest challenge is the occupation."
Isaac's words are backed by opinion polls showing that Palestinian Christians overwhelmingly cite the pressures of Israeli occupation as the primary challenge in their lives.
"Before 1948 we were around 20%. Now Palestinian Christians are less than 2%. That's why we need your voice," says Salman. "The word is much stronger than weapons. Our children and the generations to come need to live peacefully side by side with Israel. We need all together to live on this land without hatred, without any kind of violence."
Because of the community's legal petitions, the Israeli Supreme Court has temporarily halted construction of the wall while ordering the military to prove the necessity of its route and provide alternatives. So far, residents have testified that other proposed routes are equally unacceptable.
"I want to see this wall stopped," says Pastor Johnny Shawan, whose family land, passed down for centuries, is threatened by its path. "If it's not hitting me, it will hit another's land—my neighbor, my cousin, my friends."
Like those who waited for the first coming of the Christ child, Shawan waits with hope in a God of history. He recalls attending Bible college in Germany in 1989: "That year, the walls of Berlin fell down without bloodshed."
"God, I want to see this history repeated even in our town," says Shawan, issuing additional prayer requests to his sisters and brothers around the world: "That the walls of hatred and separation would fall down. That one day we'll see no walls between Israeli Jews and the Palestinians. We feel as the body of Christ that we are one because he made us one. He is the Prince of Peace who took [away] the separation wall. He will take this wall away."
Ryan Rodrick Beiler is a freelance photojournalist who lived Jerusalem and Bethlehem from 2010-2014. He now lives in Oslo, Norway.