BEIT JALA, WEST BANK — There is a lovely little valley here, with a school run by Salesian nuns and vineyards tended by Italian monks. After a nine-year legal battle, which drew the attention of the pope, Israel’s top court on Thursday rejected a government plan to route the West Bank separation barrier right through these grounds.
Israel began building a wire fence and a cement wall between the West Bank and Israel 13 years ago, during the second Palestinian intifada, or uprising. At that time, suicide bombers were carrying out a barrage of attacks on Israeli civilians.
The separation barrier is mostly complete, but small gaps remain. Israel’s Defense Ministry wanted to complete a section of the wall through the Cremisan Valley of Bethlehem, not far from where the Bible says Jesus was born.
The new section would have left a Roman Catholic monastery on the Jerusalem side and its sister Salesian convent and school on the West Bank side. Residents, clergy and congregants would have had to pass through gates manned by Israeli soldiers. The proposed route for the wall’s extension spawned frequent protests, often led by priests.
On Thursday, clergy, landowners and local Palestinian mayors celebrated the Israeli Supreme Court’s ruling as long overdue. Many had even appealed to Pope Francis for his intervention.
Latin Patriarch of Jerusalem Fouad Twal, the leader of the Catholic Church here, said the decision was especially meaningful for Christians on the eve of Easter, representing “hope, resurrection, rebirth” for the Cremisan Valley.
Bethlehem Mayor Vera Baboun, a Christian, said, “God is with us this week.” She said Bethlehem residents need the open lands and views of the valley for spiritual and mental renewal. “They need to see a place of nature, with religious sites, without a wall,” she said.
Samia Khalilieh, a Greek Orthodox Palestinian whose family owns land in the valley, said it was not easy fighting the wall’s construction. “It was in Israeli courts, in Hebrew, a language we don’t understand, and hearings went on for years,” she said. “Some lost hope. But we kept going.”
Israeli military officials say the West Bank is mostly calm these days, which is why there are relatively few attacks on Israelis in Israel or in the territory. But they also say the barrier deserves partial credit for that, by keeping assailants out. Despite the ruling, the military can still use cameras, sensors and patrols in the valley.