Update: In late January 2016 the HCJ denied the two petitions that the Municipality of Beit Jala, Beit Jala landowners and the Silesian women’s monastery in Cremisan filed against construction of a section of the Separation Barrier in the Bir ‘Una area of Beit Jala, and authorized construction to continue.
In August 2015, Israel’s Ministry of Defense renewed construction work on the Separation Barrier near the Palestinian town of Beit Jala in the West Bank. Doing so disregards the legal proceedings on the matter still underway, and creates permanent facts on the ground. The section of the barrier now under construction will separate the residents of Beit Jala from their privately owned farmland in the Cremisan Valley, although farming that land is an indispensable source of income. Also, the Cremisan valley is one of the last green patches left in the Bethlehem District and serves as a recreation area for the locals. In addition, there are two Salesian monasteries in the valley: the Cremisan Monastery, where monks make wine and olive oil from nearby vineyards and groves, and the women’s monastery, which offers educational services to hundreds of local children. By completing this section of the barrier, Israel will effectively annex large swathes of land.
At present, the barrier is being built along a route approximately 1.2 kilometer long, with a gap some 225 meters wide near the monasteries. After a prolonged legal battle that has lasted almost nine years, the residents of Beit Jala and the monasteries are now awaiting a ruling by Israel’s High Court of Justice (HCJ) on the matter.
Building the barrier along the planned route will directly and severely harm Beit Jala residents:
Confiscating land that is privately owned by Palestinians and uprooting dozens of ancient olive trees to build the barrier: The route traverses plots of land privately owned by Beit Jala residents. This land was seized under Seizure Order SO-62-06 (see yellow marking on aerial photograph above). Upon renewal of the construction work, the Ministry of Defense recently had dozens of ancient olives trees uprooted and transferred for replanting nearby. Landowners who gave testimony to B’Tselem explained that the trees were uprooted carelessly, thereby severely damaging the trees. Therefore, they argue, replanting the trees elsewhere is merely a superficial attempt to mask extensive financial and emotional damage.
Severing dozens of families from their farmland and their major source of income: Some 300 hectares of olives groves, orchards, and beehives – which require continuous and painstaking care – will end up on the Israeli side of the barrier. The state committed before the HCJ to installing an agricultural gate in the barrier so Palestinian farmers can access their land. This however, extremely limits their access by making it subject to Israel’s permit system, and results in a life of constant uncertainty and dependence on the whims or good will of Israeli authorities. B’Tselem’s report on the effect of this arrangement on the residents of Jayyus, for example, found that it led to diminished economic and agricultural Palestinian activity in an area previously considered stable, eroding the community’s self-sustainability.
Blocking the development of Beit Jala, as the barrier will sever the town from the only land reserves it has left for future development.
Video: Civil Administration bulldozer transports olive tree uprooted from Beit Jala’s groves at Bir ‘Unah. Filmed by Sarit Michaeli, B’Tselem, 20 August 2015
Nader Abu Ghatas, 55, a university teacher from Beit Jala related the following to B’Tselem field researcher Musa Abu Hashhash (26 August 2015):
My brother and I own two plots of land with olives groves in Bir ‘Unah, northwest of Beit Jala. One is 0.7 hectares and the other, next to it, is 0.8 hectares. The olives and olive oil that we press make up about 15% of our families’ income, and we also depend on the oil for our own use.On Monday, 17 August 2015, I was surprised to find Israeli bulldozers working on our land in Bir ‘Unah. The other landowners and I were given no prior notice of confiscation or planned work on our plots. I stayed in the area throughout the day and watched the bulldozers and tractors uproot the ancient olives trees and wrecking the plots. It was a huge disaster for me and for my neighbors. I was incredibly sad and angry. I was very pained that I couldn’t do a thing to keep the tractors from uprooting the trees, which were hundreds of years old. I never thought they’d be uprooted.
In addition to the direct damage caused to me and to owners of nearby plots, the constructed barrier will prevent us from cultivating other plots and groves that will end up be on its other side. We’ll have to coordinate our access with the Civil Administration and ask for permits to reach our own land, to work it and harvest olives. At the end of the day, we’ll have to abandon our land and later on, the Israeli authorities will claim it. Our losses are very heavy because we, in Beit Jala, rely on our olive trees as a major source of income.
In general, the barrier, which according to the plans is supposed to go as far the Cremisan Monastery, will turn Beit Jala into a small, narrow, crowded prison and will prevent us from expanding the town in future. Also, because of the barrier, we won’t be able to go out of Beit Jala for leisure. We always used to go out onto our land and sit and eat there, the whole family – men, women and children. Everyone had a lot of fun on the farmland.
In a broader geographic context, the planned route of the barrier is yet one more manifestation of the policy by Israeli governments to expand and entrench settlements. It lays the foundations for annexing the settlement of Har Gilo, which is under the jurisdiction of the Gush Etzion Regional Council, thus creating territorial contiguity with the settlement of Gilo, which lies within the boundaries of the Jerusalem Municipality. Building this section will complete the barrier surrounding the land that has been annexed to Jerusalem, enabling the entire area from Gush Etzion and Beitar Illit to Jerusalem to be annexed to Israel proper.
Despite the many years of legal proceedings described below, Israel persists in promoting its plans in the Beit Jala area, laying the groundwork for annexing the settlement of Har Gilo. It does so while making minor changes to its original plans and establishing facts on the ground. The HCJ was given clear information of this situation, yet elected not to prevent the fundamental harm to the residents of Beit Jala and the Cremisan monasteries and declined to recognize that its rulings were being held in contempt by the state.