Cremisan monastery - Olivier Fitoussi - 05012012
An Israeli soldier walking away after handing a demolition order to Sister Adrianna of the Cremisan monastery. Photo by Olivier Fitoussi

A Salesian monastery and convent will be severed from one another by the barrier separating Israel and the Palestinian territories, after an Israeli court last week rejected a petition for a planned portion of the barrier to be rerouted. The ruling was made public on Friday.

The Tel Aviv Magistrates Court rejected the petition from Palestinian landowners in the town of Beit Jala and representatives of the nearby Salesian monastery, who sued to have a portion of the West Bank separation barrier rerouted.

The Society of St. Yves, a Catholic human rights group that argued the case on the monastery's behalf, said an Israeli appeals court had endorsed a plan to expand the barrier built in the area.

Officials of the (Catholic) Latin Patriarchate of Jerusalem were unhappy with the decision, because the Israeli barrier would sever the convent of the Salesian order from the monastery, and also separate the convent from its farmland.

The wall would surround the convent on three sides, St. Yves said in a statement.

The petition was heard at the Tel Aviv Magistrate’s Court before an appeals committee created under the land expropriation law. The committee denied the appeal on security grounds.

It also rejected an alternative route that was suggested, below Nahal Gilo, which would have allowed the farmland, the monastery and the convent to remain on the Palestinian side, on the grounds that the route would not be secure as it would run along the low ground.

The petitioners claimed that the route was designed for Israel to annex the settlement of Har Gilo to the Israeli side of the barrier and, in the future, to connect it with the Gilo neighborhood of Jerusalem.

Israel started building the barrier, a mix of metal fencing, barbed wire and concrete walls, in 2002 in response to a wave of Palestinian suicide bombings. It says the barrier keeps its citizens safe from militants.

St. Yves argued "that the plan would violate international law and conventions protecting religious minorities and the right to education and freedom of religion," said Anica Heinlein, its advocacy officer.

The nuns of the convent initially wished to remain on the Israeli side of the barrier to avoid being separated from their farmland, but they later changed their position and asked to be on the Palestinian side, since the community it serves lives in Beit Jala.

Salesian monks and nuns tend lush vineyards and olive trees on terraced hillsides under the gaze of Israeli settlements there. A convent school teaches 400 local children. Defense Ministry officials granted the request and changed the route, but the convent continues to oppose the barrier on principle.

The decision means that the convent, which remains on the Palestinian side, will be separated from the monastery, which will remain on the Israeli side, and they will not be able to hold joint ceremonies as they now do. In addition, the barrier will surround the convent school on three sides, and the access route to the school will go through the patrols along the barrier. The nuns have also expressed concerns about damage to the school and of conflict between the pupils and soldiers.

Besides the Salesian convent, the main people affected by the barrier will be the residents of Beit Jala, since 3,000 dunams of their farmland will remain on the Israeli side and will have to pass through gates to cultivate it. “The residents of Beit Jala are appalled by the ruling,” said attorney Ghiath Nasser, who represents the Palestinian residents. “The route creates a noose around Beit Jala and closes in its last refuge, its development area. This is being done to create contiguity in settlements between Har Gilo and Gilo.” Nasser said he intended to appeal the ruling to the High Court of Justice. Officials of the Society of St. Yves, also intend to appeal to the High Court.

The judges who heard the petition also rejected the assertion that constructing the barrier would violate treaties Israel signed with the Vatican regarding the treatment of holy sites in Jerusalem. This attorney general previously said that constructing the fence did not violate the treaties and that the convent and monastery could be compensated for any damage they might suffer. The committee members also rejected an appeal from Professor Judy Green, an architect, who warned that the ancient terraces in the area would be damaged. “Any barrier constructed in the area would harm the beautiful landscape, but since we determined, in addition to the earlier rulings of the High Court of Justice and the committee, that the barrier was necessary because of the security situation, the barrier will be constructed along some route in the end and damage the beautiful landscape, ecosystem and terrace agriculture,” the decision read.

The section of the barrier that was just approved marks almost the final stage of its encirclement of Jerusalem. The barrier around the village of Walaja is almost completed, and the High Court hearing about the part of the barrier that is expected to damage the ancient terraces near the village of Batir, is scheduled to continue on Wednesday.

Col. (res.) Shaul Arieli, a member of the Council for Peace and Security, said the court's ruling proves that the separation barrier's route "is determined at its root by political and settlement-related motives, which are sometimes promoted at the expense of security requirements. In this section, the intent is to annex the entire area between Jerusalem and Gush Etzion and Betar Ilit, contrary to the understandings that existed in the talks between Israel and the PLO.”

Arieli added that the committee did not allow the Council for Peace and Security to suggest an alternative route that would minimize the damage to the Palestinians or to the convent and monastery.