Oh brothers, where art thou?

Israel's plans to extend its controversial 470-mile security barrier further into Palestinian territory have pitted a Christian community's nuns and monks against each other, writes Catrina Stewart in Beit Jala

Beit Jala

A Catholic priest bedecked in purple and white robes offers a benediction, his prayer carrying through the olive grove where a scattering of Palestinian flags flutter from the branches.

Across the valley, the houses glinting in the setting sun, is the Israeli settlement of Gilo. A siren sounds in the distance, the wailing call that marks the beginning of the Jewish Shabbat.

Every Friday, a cluster of Christian worshippers gather at this spot on a Palestinian hillside a few miles from Bethlehem in muted protest at the extension of Israel's 470-mile separation wall further into Palestinian territory that could soon split Beit Jala, a Christian town in the Bethlehem governorate, and cut Palestinian farmers off from their land.

Less than a mile away is the Cremisan monastery, home to a reclusive community of Salesian monks in a bucolic setting of hillside terraces and vineyards and a key part of the Christian community here.

Under Israel's latest proposal, it will be effectively annexed, separated from Beit Jala by an eight-metre high wall, along with 740 acres of the town's private land needed for future expansion.

The more than 50 Palestinian landowners here who will lose access to their land include a community of Salesian nuns who run a kindergarten. They are fighting to change the route in the Israeli courts but fear they have little chance of success when the court rules next month.

Privately, they are seething that the Salesian monks, who operate a flourishing vineyard, have not joined their protest and accuse them of colluding with Israel to remain on the Israeli side of the wall, thus allowing them to circumvent checkpoints to bring their wine to Israeli and overseas markets and protect their solitude.

"The locals helped the Salesians come here by selling them the land," says Nader Abu Amsha, a member of the Beit Jala municipal council. "The monks are just turning a blind eye to what's taking place and doing nothing to prevent this. By not struggling, they are losing the reason to stay here."

It was in the 1880s that the Salesians first arrived in this area, buying the land for a symbolic sum to start an orphanage. The orphanage no longer exists and ties with the monastery and Palestinian Christians are now frayed, say local priests, as many feel that if the monks were to put up a fight, Israel would balk at a head-on confrontation with the Vatican and alter its plans.

Indeed, the Salesian nuns who live a mile down the road towards Beit Jala successfully campaigned in 2006 to change the route of the wall, winning the right to remain in the West Bank and not in Israel.

Reflecting the local view, Sha'adi Qasiyeh, 27, who lives next door to the monastery, suggests the monks have chosen Israel over the West Bank.

"They are asking to be in Jerusalem because they have a winery. They sell to Jews, and it is self-interest," he says. "They should support Christians, not help force them out."

But the monastery denies the claims, insisting the wall's route is a political decision out of its hands and nothing to do with its business interests.

"The construction of the wall has been a unilateral decision imposed against international laws," the monastery responded in an emailed statement. "For our part we will give no pretext to suggest that we are legitimising this abuse of power.

"It is up to the Palestinian political authority to oppose the construction of the wall and to deal with the Israelis."

Citing the need for security, Israel has since 2003 steadily erected a snaking barrier which it has credited with all but stopping Palestinian suicide attacks against Israeli civilians.

But the fact that parts are unbuilt – allowing one to walk across into Israel – belies that claim, say Palestinians, who accuse the Jewish state of using the guise of security to grab land in the West Bank, captured by Israel in the 1967 Six-Day War. At present, 12 percent of the West Bank lies on the Israeli side of the wall.

"Is it security to take the lands of others, their trees, their houses? Is this security?" asks Wajiha Kuntar, an 80-year-old woman whose family will lose an acre of land to the wall.

The reason for its route close to Beit Jala appears to lie with Gilo, the Israeli settlement on the other side of the sweeping and verdant valley.

One of the battlegrounds of the Second Intifada, the Palestinian uprising that erupted in 2000, it was for a time the target of heavy gunfire from militants in Beit Jala before a wall was erected, only to be later pulled down.

Built on occupied lands, Gilo is classed by Israel as a Jerusalem suburb but viewed by the world as an illegal settlement. Once the wall is built, Gilo will be directly linked to Har Gilo, a newer Israeli settlement on the hill above Beit Jala. The two areas are currently split by an Israeli checkpoint. "They want to build a human wall around Jerusalem," says Father Ibrahim Shomali, Beit Jala's parish priest who leads the weekly protest mass.

"There has been no security threat here for two or three years. The Palestinians are [focused] now on politics, and not on arms."

Meanwhile, Israel insists access to the monastery will remain unchanged, but Palestinians say pressure on the monks means they can no longer ramble in the Cremisan grounds, once a popular walking and picnicking spot.

Farmers fear the expected yearly access to their olive groves will gradually dwindle to none at all.

Father Emile Salayta – head of the Latin Ecclesiastical Court in Jerusalem and who is advising the Salesian nuns in their legal case – has joined efforts to persuade the monks to resist Israel's plans but said they had told him it was "too late" to do anything.

However, he insists the right thing to do is fight, arguing that it is better "to lose as a subject of injustice rather than by our silence".

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