As barriers grow… the wall prayer in Bethlehem continues

November 26, 2023

‘Let’s continue to pray to end this war, and most importantly, to end the root cause of this suffering in the Holy Land that has been going on for 75 years.’

Vice-chancellor of Bethlehem University

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.

Watchtower along the Separation Barrier

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 rosarySome 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’.

The icon on the Separation Barrier next to a sign warning that security cameras are in place

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;

‘I have been part of the group that assembles there since I arrived at the end of 2008. I look on participating in that prayer as a way of standing in solidarity with the Palestinian people who are so oppressed and restricted by the wall. For many of us, when walking up and down praying the rosary we think of Joshua and his process of walking around the walls of Jericho. Those walls came tumbling down! Our prayer is that this monstrosity will also come tumbling down and the Palestinian people will be free, free at last!’

A Palestinian woman who has attended the Wall Prayer many times over the years says;

‘The situation is so sad and bad. We live with fear and doubt of what is going on. We don’t stop praying for peace. Mention everyone in your prayers.’

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.

‘In constructing the Separation Barrier, Israel broke up contiguous Palestinian urban and rural blocs and severed inter-community ties that had been forged and cemented over the course of many generations.’

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.

‘The olive harvest season is usually a hugely special and joyful time for Palestinians, when families and friends come together to pick their olives and share food. But this year is very different. Farmers have been shot dead while harvesting their crops, while others have had their trees cut, uprooted, or set on fire.’

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 day after the war, on 8th October, all of the tourists left. They were here and it was starting to get busy but they went home. All of the hotels are closed. Nobody is staying here, coming here, since the start of the war. My friend has a travel agency office and he told me that people who were booked in for visits next spring are cancelling also. It is a very, very difficult life. The economy is very bad and we cannot go from village-to-village, city-to-city. We can hardly go out at all. It is not safe. We hope this situation will stop and there can be freedom for everybody.’

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.   

‘Please keep us in your prayers and know that it is a great boost for people here to know that there are people outside this little enclave who are thinking of them and praying for them! Thanks for doing that.’

Vice-chancellor of Bethlehem University

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What does international law say?

'No protected person may be punished for an offence he or she has not personally committed.'

Article 33, Fourth Geneva Convention, 1949

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Article 6, International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights, 1966

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Article 12, International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, 1966

by EA Jean –    November 26, 2023

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