Palestinians in church housing fear return of Israeli bulldozers

By Ecumenical News International
26 Feb 2009

Judith Sudilovsky writes: One morning two months ago William Sahouri woke up to find that, after six years, Israeli bulldozers had returned to the hilltop opposite his apartment building.

His home lies not far from the Holy Land cities of Bethlehem and Jerusalem, which are very close as the crow flies, but which can sometimes take hours for Palestinians to reach due to a myriad of Israeli security hurdles.

Sahour, aged 42, lives with 56 Palestinian Christian families in a 10-building Greek Orthodox housing project at Jabal al-Deik, on the outskirts of Beit Sahour, a town east of Bethlehem. The first families moved in 13 years ago and an 11th building is under construction.

In 2002 Israel issued a demolition order for all the buildings, which are built on property owned by the Greek Orthodox Church. The Israeli government maintained that the land is located in a zone known as Area C where Israel has complete military and civil control.

At the same time, Israeli authorities began construction of a new Jerusalem-neighbourhood, Har Homa, on land expropriated largely from Beit Sahour land owners on the Jabal Abu Gheniem hillside. Palestinians says this an example of the encroachment of an Israeli settlement.

Although the demolition orders have not been carried out on the Greek Orthodox properties, residents of the housing project have lived with the threat for four years.

"They didn't cancel the order, they just postponed it. They put it on the back burner," said Sahouri, a member of the housing complex council.

As the housing project has struggled to complete the 11 apartment buildings, the residents there have watched Har Homa expand to the south with thousands of buildings stretching down Jabal Abu Gheniem, almost into the valley bordering Jabal al-Deik.

Now the construction trucks have returned to begin work on the second stage of the Har Homa neighbourhood on a hilltop several hundred meters away from Jabal al-Deik, sticking out into Beit Sahour lands, which Palestinians liken to a sore thumb.

Part of the new section will abut onto property owned by Sahouri's cousin. "It is all part of the non-stop expansion of Har Homa," said Suhail Khalilieh, head of the settlement monitoring unit of the Applied Research Institute of Jerusalem located in Bethlehem.

Already the housing complex faces a security fence, a section of the larger separation barrier Israel has built throughout the West Bank on the pretext of keeping out attackers, but which many Palestinians believe is a means of encroaching on their land.

This section of the fence is expected, upon completion, to cut off the Jabal al-Deik neighbourhood from the rest of Beit Sahour. About 25 mostly Christian families live there, in addition to those living in the Greek Orthodox Housing Project. At the same time it will separate them from Jerusalem, which is also close by. Residents will need permits to cross into and outside the area through a gate under Israeli control.

"The fence is almost complete in that area. Nobody knows the actual facts in that area but the Israelis are planning to enclose an additional area with a security road," said Khalilieh.

For residents of Beit Sahour, the return of the construction trucks signals the beginning of more trouble and, with a right-wing government shaping up to take over the Israeli parliament following the 10 February elections, they fear work will begin again on the security road and fence.

"We are concerned that any new [Israeli] government will close us in or confiscate our land," said Sahouri, standing on the roof of his building, pointing to the security road about a hundred meters away. A new by-pass road beyond it is meant to connect southern Jerusalem to the southern Jewish settlements in the Gush Etzion area between Bethlehem and Hebron.

"We will be in a cage, if they don't demolish the complex," Sahouri said.

Sarah Kreimer, associate director of the Israeli Ir Amim organization which seeks to promote a politically sustainable future in Jerusalem, noted that similar gates in other areas of Jerusalem which have previously been left open have now been closed.

"There has to be a realisation that [in order for their to be security for Israel] you have to also take into consideration the lives of the people. If their lives are made impossible that does not contribute to Israel's security," said Kreimer.

Calls by Ecumenical News International to the Israeli Ministry of Defense were not returned.

[With acknowledgements to ENI. Ecumenical News International is jointly sponsored by the World Council of Churches, the Lutheran World Federation, the World Alliance of Reformed Churches, and the Conference of European Churches.]

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