But the Vatican is concerned that the planned barrier will still encroach on nearby Bethlehem properties
By Lauren Gelfond Feldinger. Published online: 25 January 2015. Source: The ART Newspaper

Israel’s Supreme Court earlier this month dismissed a landmark case thereby preventing Israel’s West Bank barrier from running through an ancient Palestinian site.

Battir, a farming village in the West Bank Bethlehem district, was last year declared an endangered world heritage site by both Unesco and the World Monuments Fund. The village’s agricultural terraces and canals, which are still in use, date to the Byzantine era. The village itself is 4,000 years old, according to archaeologist Gideon Sulimani.

In 2007, villagers filed a petition to prevent Israel’s separation barrier route from annexing their lands. After their petition was dismissed, they joined conservation and environmental activists to file a new petition in 2012.

Israel began planning a 712-km barrier around the West Bank in 2002 after numerous terror attacks. Around 72%—445km—has already been constructed or is under construction according to the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs.

Palestinian, Israeli and international rights organisations argue that about 85% of the barrier’s route runs through, not around, the West Bank. Dozens of petitions against the annexing of Palestinian land to build the barrier have reached Israel’s High Court. Battir’s petition was the first to raise preservation issues.

The court ordered the military to find an alternative route last year and finally dismissed the case on 4 January because the Ministry of Defence had not proven a security need or allocated funds in its 2015 budget to build the barrier there, showing it is not a priority. The Ministry of Defence did not respond to a request for a statement.

The army can submit a plan to run the barrier through Battir again in the future, but would have to start legal proceedings from scratch, which could take years, says Shlomy Zachary, a lawyer representing EcoPeace Middle East, one of the petitioners. “In the course of three or four hearings, the court [understood] that the cultural, environmental, social, economic, and sociological elements of Battir are very unique to this region,” Zachary says. “For all these reasons, despite the brevity of the judgement, it has huge implications for the region” not least because it requires that these issues should be considered when planning the route of the separation barrier, he says.

As villagers in Battir, environmental and heritage campaigners and rights advocates cheer the court’s decision, five kilometres away in the Cremisan Valley, monks and nuns at the Salesian Monastery and Convent and their neighbours are awaiting a verdict on their own petition against the proposed route of the separation barrier there. The route of the barrier could annex monastery property, divide the Palestinian Christian community from their green spaces, farmlands and source of livelihoods; and enclose the clerics in barbed wire, affecting the school children studying there and the freedom of religion and movement, says the Catholic human rights organisation, the Society of Saint Yves, which is one of the petitioners. In January an international delegation of bishops and heads of churches joined the British Consul, General Sir Alastair McPhail, on a solidarity visit to Cremisan.

A source close to the Vatican said that Pope Francis had an unofficial meeting with Prime Minister Netanyahu about Cremisan on his visit to Israel and Palestine last May. William Shomali, the Auxiliary Bishop of the Latin Patriarchate of Jerusalem, could not confirm this but said that Pope Francis and Vatican officials are “informed” and “concerned” about the possible barrier in Cremisan, the barrier in general and “all walls, psychological and physical, that divide the people of the Holy Land”.