In Cremisan, our land represents our existence
Since the beginning of our struggle for Cremisan, we have been determined to tell the world about the story of a small Palestinian community that, like many others, is threatened once again with dispossession and colonization.
Beit Jala had already lost two thirds of its lands to the Israeli settlements of Gilo and Har Gilo, leaving our town with only 4,500 dunams of land. Our land represents not only our heritage and our olives represent not only our presence: they represent our existence.
As Palestinians we have gone for painful stories. In Beit Jala, we saw the refugees flee in 1948, the settlements grow since 1967, and the oppression engendered by a military occupation that aims at annexing our land. We witnessed the historic compromise made by the PLO, recognizing Israel on 78 percent of historic Palestine, which we all believed would bring peace.
But Israel decided otherwise through its insatiable appetite for land. Since the PLO recognized Israel and accepted a two-state solution on the 1967 border, Israel has accelerated settlement construction and other elements of its colonial enterprise. Our town, due to its proximity to Jerusalem, was a natural target for Israeli settlements.
When Israel announced its plans to build the annexation wall, Palestine went to the International Court of Justice, and in 2004 obtained an unequivocal opinion: The construction of the wall in the occupied Palestinian territory, including in and around East Jerusalem, and its associated regime, violate international law. Nevertheless, Israel has continued to build the wall with impunity.
For the Bethlehem district, and Beit Jala particularly, the annexation wall meant, in the words of Bishop Desmond Tutu said, to be condemned by strangulation. We saw how Israel continued to usurp our land.
First, Israel severed our connection with Jerusalem for first time in Christianity’s 2,000-year history. Second, Israel denied us access to our lands and natural resources, including our water. And now, Cremisan, the beautiful valley of our kindergarten, convent and winery, and the home of our yearly procession, will disappear behind this illegal wall.
The wall is being used to link the settlements of Gilo and Har Gilo, consolidating the Israeli annexation of our land.
As a parish priest, I could not remain indifferent to these destructive acts. Our duty as clergy is to provide hope and fight for love, justice and peace. Israeli settlements and their network of walls, fences, checkpoints and settler-only roads destroy any prospect for peace.
I could not let my community’s hope for their future be fully extinguished. And since the world was deaf and blind to our predicament, we decided to call upon God for help. We mobilized our community to pray every Friday on the land and amongst the olive trees that Israel aims to take.
We decided to pray with the olive trees, because they represent our history rooted in this land. These olive trees alone stood with Jesus Christ at the Gethsemane, according to our Holy Bible. They cried with him, and now we were crying with them.
Our prayers brought international attention. Suddenly, hundreds of communities around the world were praying for Cremisan. The Holy See rallied to our cause. The Government of Palestine lent us support, with President Abbas dedicating his Christmas message to our nonviolent campaign to keep our land. The Archbishop of Westminster, Cardinal Vincent Nicols, prayed for us during his Christmas homily.
Dozens of archbishops, bishops and priests from Italy, France, Spain, Brazil, Argentina, Andorra, Belgium, South Africa, Canada, the United States, Germany, Sweden, Norway, Portugal, Jordan and Egypt, joined our prayers at Cremisan. The World Council of Churches and numerous Catholic, Evangelical and Orthodox communities prayed in communion with the people of Beit Jala.
I myself delivered a letter to His Holiness Pope Francis, who also committed himself to our cause. The Catholic Church has remained united against the annexation wall, despite Israeli allegations to the contrary.
Paradoxically, the only place where Palestinians can attempt to defend their land from Israeli expansionism are the Israeli courts. Unable to bring our case in international courts, we depended on the ingenuity of our lawyers and the steadfastness of our people. Recognizing the justness of our cause, the Israeli Supreme Court delayed the case at least until July 30th.
We hope that the visit of His Holiness Pope Francis in May will highlight the struggle of the Palestinian people, Christians and Muslims, for justice and freedom. Then we will hope for another miracle: the definitive end of the Cremisan wall, the end to the nightmare of the occupation, with its illegal settlements, fences and walls.