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
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, preparing 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.
At the end of 2010, the women’s monastery of Cremisan joined the appeal process, seeking to change the route which left the monastery and its educational institutions on the annexed side of the fence, isolated from the community they serve. Consequently, the Ministry of Defense issued a new seizure order in 2011 leaving the women’s monastery on the Palestinian side of the barrier. However, the amended route severed the monastery from some of its land and from the men’s monastery, which was slated to remain on the side annexed by Israel. Following the amendment, the committee denied the appeal, stating that the new route was based on operational considerations and the harm it would cause was proportionate.
The residents of Beit Jala and the town’s municipality then petitioned the HCJ to overturn the committee’s decision and annul the order issued to seize their land. They also requested that the Court order an examination of alternatives to the proposed route, arguing that it is neither reasonable nor proportionate.
Civil Administration bulldozer digs holes for replanting olive tree uprooted from Beit Jala’s groves (left) at Bir ‘Unah. Barrier to be constructed to the right of homes pictured. Photo by Sarit Michaeli, B’Tselem, 20 August 2015
As part of the hearing of the petition, the Peace and Security Association (PSA) submitted to the Court a security assessment signed by Adv. Talia Sasson, Lt. Col. (res.) Shaul Ariely, and Brig. Gen. (res.) Gadi Zohar. In the assessment, the PSA stated that the route proposed by the state did not meet the requirements of proportionality and nor did it provide adequate security. The PSA suggested an alternate route, arguing that it would offer better security while at the same time causing less and more proportionate harm to the residents of Beit Jala. Moreover, the route suggested by the PSA would not separate the residents of the town from their farmland nor subject them to the hurtful permit regime that would be necessary if the state’s proposed route is adopted. The HCJ accepted the state’s objection to the PSA’s proposed route, ruling that it would not meet the security needs that underpin the objective of Separation Barrier as well as the route proposed by the state.
The Salesian monasteries, represented by Adv. Zvi Avni of the Society of St. Yves, added themselves to the arguments made in the HCJ petition by the Beit Jala Municipality and the town residents, and confirmed that the petition reflects their positions. In addition, the two monasteries objected to the state’s proposed route because it would separate them from their communities, from each other, and from their farmland. The HCJ, which had denied the arguments made by the residents of Beit Jala, accepted the monasteries’ claims and on 21 July 2013, issued a temporary order prohibiting further construction of the barrier pending a different ruling. On 3 February 2014, the HCJ also issued an order nisi instructing the Ministry of Defense to present its arguments against the cancelation of the land seizure orders and of the decision by the appeals committee, as well as explain why it is not possible to examine alternatives and adopt an alternate route. On 7 August 2014, the justices instructed the Ministry of Defense to consider various options for keeping the two monasteries on the Palestinian side of the barrier, so as not to sever them from the Palestinian communities they serve in the area of Beit Jala.
On 4 September 2014, the Ministry of Defense presented two alternative routes that would leave the men’s monastery on the annexed side of the barrier, with a connecting gate between the monasteries. In both cases, the proposed path between the monasteries would be a surrounded with barbed wire, leaving the monasteries with a choice between two options: (1) Laying responsibility for security inspections on the monks remaining on the annexed side; (2) Separating the monks of Cremisan (with barbed wire) from their vineyards – their source of income and the symbol of the monastery. The authorities’ false pretense that these options leave both monasteries on the Palestinian side of the barrier and enable free movement between them was adamantly rebutted by the monasteries, the Beit Jala Municipality, the Palestinian landowners, and the PSA.
On 2 April 2015, the HCJ turned the order nisi issued more than a year earlier into an absolute order, clarifying that it pertained to the monasteries only. The Court ruled that the Ministry of Defense must “expeditiously reconsider the various alternative routes for the Separation Barrier in the section under discussion”. In their ruling, the justices made it clear that the monasteries must not be separated from their communities and from each other, and its occupants must be ensured free access to their lands.
On 29 April 2015, the Ministry of Defense announced it plans to start work to build the section of the barrier that starts at the northern end of the Tunnels Bridge and stretches 1.2 kilometers. The Ministry also announced that until the process of examining alternative routes near the monasteries is exhausted, a gap some 225 meters wide will be left in the barrier, as sketched on the aerial photograph below. The gap spans the road connecting the two monasteries and enables access to them. In its notice, the Ministry stressed that “once the examination process is exhausted, if needed, the necessary statutory measures will be taken, including issuing new land seizure orders and closing the said gap. Needless to say, all this will be carried out in accordance with the principle laid out in the ruling that both monasteries will be on the West Bank side of the Security Fence, so that movement between them and to them from the direction of the West Bank will remain free”.
Adv. Gayat Nasser, legal counsel for the Beit Jala Municipality and the landowners, filed an urgent request with the HCJ in under the Contempt of Court Order, demanding that the ruling be enforced and that an injunction be issued forbidding any further work on the current route of the barrier. In response to the petitioners’ argument that constructing the barrier will prevent the farmers of Beit Jala from freely accessing the land they cultivate, the state emphasized on 21 June 2015 that “their access to the land will remain free and as it is today”. However, the section of the barrier being built along the 1.2 km route described above will create incontrovertible facts on the ground, effectively quashing future consideration of alternatives that will not cut farmers off from their land. Setting a gate in the barrier so they can access land trapped on the other side will leave the farmers at the mercy of Israel’s permit regime and its attendant harm. On 6 July 2015, the Court denied the request, ruling that the construction work planned by the state does not constitute contempt of the court as it does not contradict the absolute order issued.
In another attempt to stop the construction work, Adv. Nasser filed another petition on 23 July 2015, arguing that the objections of the Beit Jala Municipality and of the injured landowners were not properly heard. In addition, on 30 July 2015 Adv. Zvi Avni of the Society of St. Yves - which is representing the women’s monastery, filed a specific petition to issue an order nisi and an injunction instructing the state to present the entire route at this stage and prevent continuation of the current modus operandi, in which the barrier is being piecemeal while creating facts on the ground. The petitions were heard together by the HCJ on 9 November 2015. At that hearing, the state clarified that of the 1.2 kilometers of the planned fence (not including the 225-meter gap), 500 meters have already been built and it plans to continue construction until the remaining 700 meters are completed. At the end of the hearing, the justices stated that they would send their decision to all parties upon fully examining all arguments and balances.
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.
Route of the Separation Barrier in Beit Jala area