Al Jazeera – 1 April 2004
While the clashes over land confiscation from Palestinians in the West Bank have been capturing the headlines, another shocking development in the evolution of Israel’s wall, in Jerusalem, has gone entirely unnoticed.
In recent weeks, Israeli bulldozers have finished their work at the Palestinian village of Abu Dis, on the outskirts of Jerusalem, and moved to the very heart of the Holy City: the Mount of Olives.
There demolition crews have begun scarring the eastern slopes of the mountain and uprooting hundreds of ancient olive trees.
Paradoxically, the place where Israel’s activity is concentrated is at a hamlet known as Bait Fagi, which at this time of year is the focus of global Christian attention.
Reputedly, 2000 years ago Jesus stopped at Bait Fagi to ask for food while on his way to Jerusalem. All that could be found, according to legend, was the unripe fruit of palm trees, from which Bait Fagi derives its name: the Place of the Unripe Dates.
More famously, Jesus was also brought a donkey, which he mounted and rode into the Holy City, his way set out for him on a carpet of palm leaves.
This coming Sunday, Palm Sunday, Christians will commemorate the event with processions and the blessing of palm branches.
But the most important procession should be taking place on the Mount of Olives, following in Jesus’s footsteps from Bethany, now the modern Palestinian village of Aizariya, to Bait Fagi, where two neighbouring chapels – one Roman Catholic, the other Greek Orthodox – lay rival claim to be built over the rock where Jesus mounted the donkey.
Officially the churches are saying nothing apart from that this year’s procession will go ahead as normal. But privately they concede that this will be the last procession – next year the route will almost certainly be impassable.
Even this year the pilgrims, carrying aloft palm and olive branches, will be greeted at Bait Fagi by a section of wall comprising 8m-high concrete slabs obstructing their way to the two chapels.
But on Sunday, they will at least still be able to navigate their way round it.
Hope that the progress of the wall can be halted or even slowed on the Mount of Olives looks misplaced.
Although the legality of the wall is being challenged at The Hague, the ruling, even if it goes against the barrier, will be non-binding on Israel.
Also, officials for the Catholic and Orthodox patriarchs have so far refused to speak out. Both churches are currently mired in difficult confrontations with the Israeli authorities and do not want another public row.
The Greek Orthodox has been struggling to win the official Israeli stamp of approval for the appointment of their patriarch in Jerusalem, Bishop Irineos.
Although the government, after two years of wrangling, has finally backed him, the decision is now being challenged in the courts by Israeli businessmen interested in the church’s huge landholdings.
The Catholic church, on the other hand, is battling Israeli red tape to renew visas for more than 100 staff, including priests, monks and nuns.
Many applications are being turned down by the Interior Ministry and there have even been recent reports of nuns being arrested.
David Jaegar, a spokesman in Israel for the Vatican, said: “In the Catholic world there is a growing view that Israel has deliberately framed a policy to hurt the church.
“Nobody believes some clerk in the population registry is able to reach these decisions on his own.”
Although the wall on the Mount of Olives will be shielded from the view of most tourists to Jerusalem, it will be only a few hundred metres from the Old City and some of the sites holiest to Judaism, Christianity and Islam, including the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, the Wailing Wall and al-Aqsa mosque.
At Bait Fagi, some 40 homes were saved from demolition only after the intervention of the Greek Orthodox Church, which offered up a section of its grounds for the building of the wall.
But, as a result, the families will now be stuck on the wrong side of the barrier: despite paying taxes to the Jerusalem municipality, they will soon find it almost impossible to access the city or benefit from its services.
This unenviable position has been inflicted on thousands of other families too. As the route of the wall begins to snake its way across Jerusalem, they have found themselves trapped in ghettos.
Afghani Nasira, aged 49, suffers from heart disease and her husband, Abid, aged 58, has diabetes. Both are fearful of how they will cope once the wall is finished.
“We won’t be able to get to Jerusalem hospitals and we are not insured for West Bank health care. We are in a black hole. No one is responsible for us now,” she said.
Their only way to Jerusalem will be to travel into the West Bank and back in on roads designed for Israeli settlers. There they will have to negotiate their way through army checkpoints.
“A journey that took me a few minutes on foot will now take hours by car, if it’s possible at all,” she added.
Husam Katishi, aged 30, also lives in one of the homes that were threatened with demolition. The reprieve means that he, his wife and three young children will now live with the wall just 2m from the back of their house. They will be overlooked by armed gun towers and security lights.
Katishi has joined the other families in petitioning for a gate in the wall, but the experience of other Jerusalem Arabs cut off from city services or other family members suggests it is unlikely it will ever be approved.
“We have repeatedly rung the army representatives but they refuse to say what will happen in the future,” he said.
He says some 200 local children cross by the small section of wall each day, past the Bait Fagi chapels, to reach their schools.
“Some days a soldier turns them back, other days he is not there. Soon it won’t matter, as the wall will block their way to school anyway. Where we will be able to send them, I don’t know,” adds Katishi.
Fahdi Hamad, 28, has been on the ancient path taken by Jesus from his home in Aizariya to Bait Fagi for the past four years. He works as the gatekeeper at the Catholic chapel in Bait Fagi. He admits his days there are numbered.
“The wall will soon be finished and there will be no way I can reach the church. No one seems to care,” he says.
Enham Shama, a caretaker at the neighbouring Greek Orthodox convent, says she is shocked to think that this Palm Sunday procession will probably be the last.
“I can’t help but ask myself, what would Jesus do faced with a wall like this?”