As the statements calling for justice in Cremisan Valley fail to work, churches urged the international community at the 36th Session of UN Human Rights Council for action regarding the occupied territories between Jerusalem and Bethlehem.
“We have seen the devastating impacts of the Israeli policies of occupation on our communities, including forcible displacement, in open violation of Israel’s obligations under international law”, stated Father Ref'at Bdour, priest of the Latin Patriarchate and a member of the Executive Committee of Middle East Council of Churches. He delivered the statement of the Commission of the Churches on International Affairs (CCIA) of the World Council of Churches (WCC) at the 36th Session of the UN Human Rights Council in Geneva, during General Debate on the human rights situation in Palestine and other occupied Arab territories on 25 September.
The CCIA statement expressed deep concern at the lack of action of the international community against Israel’s illegal policies in occupied Palestine, including the wall, particularly in the Cremisan Valley, between Bethlehem and Jerusalem.
Despite the International Court of Justice declaring its illegality, Israel continued the construction of the wall, dispossessing dozens of Palestinian Christian families in Cremisan for the benefit of illegal settlements. “As leaders of a church in the Holy Land, we are fighting against all odds to prevent further displacement that would be catastrophic for our future”, stated Bdour, who is also the director of the Catholic Center for Studies and Media based in Amman, Jordan.
Statements issued by country after country have called for a halt to the violation of Palestinian rights, yet Israel continues to uphold policies that are unjust and violate international law, agreed the religious leaders. In some cases, a country has issued an official statement expressing concern about construction of the wall, yet that very same country then supports the construction financially, rhetorically or simply through silent inaction.
“Cremisan is a good example that statements alone don’t work. We demand urgent action”, said Bdour at the UN Human Rights Council. “As we pray for a just and lasting peace, we call upon each member of this council to assume its legal and moral responsibilities in order to contribute to peace in our region.”
Landowners whose land has been confiscated during the recent construction of an annexation wall in Bethlehem shared their devastation at the side-event organized by the WCC and Society of St. Yves, Catholic Center for Human Rights, at the Ecumenical Centre in Geneva on the same day.
“That is not just a land – that’s us, our identity, our memories. When I was a child, our family used to harvest olives together – that was our life”, said Issa Shatleh, Beit Jala Municipality employee and father of three children. The life of his family was changed in one moment early the morning of 17 August, when his entire land was closed and declared a military zone. His lands were bulldozed and ancient olive trees uprooted. “My land is behind the wall now – and I am not allowed to access what’s left from the olive grove even in the harvest season”.
“I used to be a farmer”, said Nakhleh Abu Eid, landowner from Beit Jala area. “I am not anymore, because I have no land left.” Abu Eid inherited the land from his ancestors, and farming was the main income for his family for hundreds of years. Two thousand year-old olive trees growing on 2,5 duman of his land produced 0,5 tons of the finest olive oil in the region.
“As soon as I heard that olive trees are being uprooted on our land, I went there and saw the area that looked like a battlefield”, said Abu Eid, recalling the events from August 2015. “They were executing the olive trees without mercy. When I tried to get closer, the guns of soldiers were pointed in my face. I stood there looking from afar, and my heart was bleeding. I felt as if they were killing the members of my family.”
As a result of such policies of the Israel government, Beit Jala is shrinking in its territory, but even worse losing its hope for any solution other than displacement of Palestinians from their lands. “We are the last nation to live under colonial occupation. But just like any other nation, we want to live in freedom in our homeland”, said Abu Eid.
Before 1948, the Cremisan valley connected villages in the western Jerusalem area with the city of Bethlehem, both now separated by Israeli settlements. “One can fairly conclude that, in a nutshell, the Cremisan case is all about connecting two illegal Israeli settlements, Gilo and Har Gilo, together at the expense of the Palestinian people, their present and future”, said Dalia Qumsieh, lawyer and head of the legal advocacy department at Society of St. Yves - Catholic Center for Human Rights.
“Nine years of litigation before Israeli courts has proved that the Israeli judiciary serves to give a delusional sense of justice and is merely a tool to legitimize the occupation and its annexation policies, without the slightest consideration for the most basic human rights of Palestinians infringed as a result”, said Qumsieh at the Ecumenical Centre in Geneva.
The Cremisan Valley runs along the seam line between the occupied West Bank and Jerusalem, and is one of the last green areas in the Bethlehem district. The southern area of the valley is known for its agricultural terraces, including over 60% of the olive trees in Beit Jala, a town famous for the quality of its olives and olive oil.
Private homes and agricultural lands lie across the valley; 58 Palestinian families own lands in Cremisan and depend on them as their primary source of livelihood. Most of the lands in the Cremisan valley are privately owned by Christian families.
Building the annexation wall in the agricultural lands of Cremisan means bulldozing the lands and uprooting the ancient olive trees to accommodate the route of the wall, therefore segregating the lands from the city of Beit Jala. As the owners of these lands experience severe damages, they will probably seek their means of support elsewhere, thus, contributing to the cleansing of Palestinian Christians from their homeland.