West Bank Christians Pray for Threatened Valley
A handful of Palestinian Christians stand on a ridge under grey skies at an open-air mass, praying for protection for the sweeping valley that descends from their feet.
For decades, the dwindling Christian community of Beit Jala and Bethlehem has joined its Muslim neighbors to work the land of the Cremisan Valley during the week, and picnic here with their families at the weekend.
But the route of Israel's controversial separation barrier will soon cut them off from the valley, placing it on the Israeli side and out of their reach -- a route that residents say was designed to grab their land.
Locals say the barrier is part of a long-standing Israeli attempt to annex territory belonging to the southern West Bank town of Bethlehem, effectively separating it from Jerusalem, which is five kilometers (three miles) away.
"With this confiscation, Jerusalem and Bethlehem will no longer be connected. That's something that the Christian world should understand," said Xavier Abu Eid, a Palestine Liberation Organization spokesman who comes from a Beit Jala family.
Residents say the land grab is part of an Israeli plan to fragment the West Bank, and make the formation of a coherent Palestinian state impossible.
In Bethlehem, it has dispossessed the area's once-thriving Christian community, pushing them to move overseas as their village lands are annexed to Jerusalem and eaten away by expanding settlements.
The Cremisan valley is well-known for its vineyards which are run by Roman Catholic monks from the Salesian order, and which provide wine to churches throughout the Holy Land.
The threat to Cremisan is especially hard to bear, said Hind Khoury, a former Palestinian envoy to Paris, because the area is a rare remaining green space.
"For me, as a Bethlehemite, Cremisan is particularly important, it's a breathing space for us," she said.
"As a child, it was the place where we went for picnics, that's where we went for Sunday outings and where families got together."
The valley is undeniably beautiful, with steppes adorned with citrus and olive trees cut into its steep sides.
Abu Eid said he grew up hearing about his grandfather's work in the stone quarry that sat on the northern side of the valley.
Now, the top of the northern ridge is dominated by the Jerusalem settlement neighborhood of Gilo, home to 35,000 people; on the southern ridge is Har Gilo settlement, with a population of around 500.
Both sit on land belonging to Beit Jala, and more of that land will disappear as the barrier rips through the 1,700 dunams (420 acre, 170 hectares) Cremisan Valley, residents say.
The International Court of Justice ruled in 2004 that parts of the barrier were illegal and should be torn down.
But Israel's defense ministry insists it protects Israelis and that the route is determined by "specific security considerations" of the area.
"In the Beit Jala region, it is there solely to keep terror out of Jerusalem," said spokesman Josh Huntman. "The barrier saves lives."
In the Cremisan area, the route of barrier deviates sharply from the Green Line, the internationally-accepted line marking the divide between Israel and the territories it captured in the 1967 Six Day War.
Landowners have petitioned Israel's Supreme Court to intervene on their behalf, and are waiting, with little hope of a reprieve, for a ruling sometime in January.
For Ibrahim Shomali, Beit Jala's parish priest, the loss of the Cremisan will only push more of the area's shrinking Christian community overseas.
"Families will lose their land, their work and their future for their children, what will they do? They will leave the country," he said.
"The presence of the Christian community here in the Holy Land makes this conflict a political conflict, not a religious conflict," he said.
Abu Eid agrees, saying Israel's ongoing seizure of land is rarely mentioned in connection with the falling number of Christians in the Holy Land.
"When people are talking about Christians emigrating, it's important to know that one of the factors is that basically we have no land anymore."
Abu Eid says Beit Jala alone has lost over 10,000 dunams (2,471 acres, 1,000 hectares) to settlements, annexation and the barrier.
"This whole area has been confiscated slowly but surely," adds Khoury, who says the barrier's route, snaking from the southwest of Bethlehem to the north east, will leave the region "literally closed in".
"This is a successive thing. They don't want the Palestinians, but they want their land."