At 5.30pm every Friday, a group of Christians walk up and down beside the Separation Barrier between Checkpoint 300 and the Greek Catholic Monastery in Bethlehem in the occupied West Bank. They recite the five mysteries of the rosary, the Catholic prayer recited on a string of beads. This is a group of about 12 or 15 people, sometimes visitors from abroad, but always the brothers from Bethlehem University and the sisters from the monastery. Decades of the rosary are led by different members of the group, in a number of different languages, usually English, French or Arabic.
The prayerfulness of the group contrasts starkly with the 8-metre high concrete blocks erected to separate the West Bank from Israel, Palestinians from Israelis. Military watchtowers are placed along the barrier and Israeli soldiers may or may not be watching from above. The group proceeds slowly through each decade, members of the group taking it in turn to lead a decade. Some of these people have been coming along for years to join in a quiet but persistent prayer for peace.
The rosary ends at the wall containing the icon of the Virgin Mary and the group starts singing the ‘Salve Regina’, otherwise known as ‘Hail, Holy Queen’, a traditional Catholic hymn usually spoken at the end of the rosary. Some of the words are particularly poignant: ‘Ad te suspiramus, gementes et flentes in hac lacrimarum valle’ – ‘To thee do we send up our sighs, mourning and weeping in this valley of tears’.
Brother Peter Bray, a supporter of the weekly prayer and Vice-Chancellor of Bethlehem University, describes how the Wall Prayer began. It started in 2005 when the wall was built in Bethlehem;
A Palestinian woman who has attended the Wall Prayer many times over the years says;
Israel started building the Separation Barrier in 2002 and whilst every state has a right to build a barrier along its borders, the Israeli separation barrier does not adhere to the internationally recognised border (known as the ‘Green’ Line) between Israel and Palestine. Instead, 85% of the barrier deviates up to 20km inside the into the occupied West Bank, trapping Palestinian land on the Israeli side and separating many Palestinians from their crops and livelihoods. The route of the barrier was deemed illegal by the International Court of Justice in 2004.
Around 150 Palestinian communities in the West Bank have to apply for special permits from the Israeli authorities to access their farms on the other side of the barrier for cultivation and harvesting. The application process is complex and rejection rates are high. According to the UN, between 2014 and 2021, ‘the limitations in accessing land has resulted in a 60 per cent reduction in yield in land beyond the barrier.’ Limitations on farmers have increased over the years with more military gates in place, which often open erratically for just 10-15 minutes each time. Where farmers do have permits, permission to enter rests with the Israeli soldier guarding the gate that day and is not guaranteed.
The impact of the Hamas attack in Israel on the 7 October, where 1,200 Israelis were killed and more than 200 are still being held hostage, is being felt across Israel and Palestine. At the time of writing, the Israeli military’s bombardment of Gaza has led to the death of more than 14,000 Gazans, including over 6,000 children. The West Bank has been placed on military lockdown, with the whole of Bethlehem closed off. 215 Palestinians in the West Bank have been killed by Israeli soldiers and settlers and over 2,800 injured.
October and November is olive harvest season in Palestine but with movement restrictions and the risk of settler and military violence at an all time high, the already existing challenges for Palestinian olive farmers have heightened considerably. 80,000-100,000 Palestinians rely on olive trees as their primary or secondary form of income.
Our local contacts in Bethlehem tell us that most farmers have been unable to access all or part of their harvest. In Al-Walaja, farmers did not risk harvesting about 75% of their olive trees, fearing attacks by settlers. In Wadi Fukin village, Israeli soldiers assaulted Palestinian farmers, and prevented them from harvesting.
At a time when Bethlehem would usually be bustling with international pilgrims visiting the birthplace of Jesus, contacts in the tourist industry in Bethlehem city tell us that they are staying home due to lack of business and fear of violence;
The Mayor of Bethlehem recently announced that traditional celebrations in Manger Square including the switch-on of the Christmas lights would be cancelled in mourning and solidarity with Gaza.
Meanwhile, the Wall Prayer continues to take place without a break every Friday at 5.30pm.
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