BETHLEHEM, West Bank
May 10, 2009
After passing through an imposing checkpoint in Israel's controversial wall that surrounds a section of Bethlehem and forms part of a barrier that Israel says is essential to its security but which the Palestinians see as a symbol of an 'apartheid' regime, Pope Benedict XVI criticized Israel's construction of the security barrier through the West Bank.
He further urged a loosening of restrictions on the Gaza Strip yesterday, a day of speeches and symbolic appearances that amounted to a running critique of Israeli policies toward the Palestinians. From a morning address alongside Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas to a late-afternoon visit to a refugee camp, the pontiff used a full day in the occupied West Bank to highlight some of the main issues on the Palestinian agenda.
His comments were pointed. And although he referred to Israeli security concerns, the focus was on how Palestinians are affected by Israeli measures such as the tall concrete fence that, Benedict said, "intrudes into your territories, separating neighbors and dividing families."
The 82-year-old pontiff said he was praying for an imminent lifting of the crippling blockade that Israel imposed on Gaza in June 2007 when Hamas, pledged to the destruction of the Jewish state, seized power.
'The Holy See supports the right of your people to a sovereign Palestinian homeland in the land of your forefathers, secure and at peace with its neighbours, within internationally recognized borders,' he said at the welcoming ceremony in Bethlehem, the traditional birthplace of Jesus.
In the midst of an eight-day Holy Land pilgrimage, the pontiff reiterated his call for peace to come to a land revered by the world's three main monotheistic faiths that has been torn by decades of violence.
'In particular I call on the international community to bring its influence to bear in favour of a solution.'
'Please be assured of my solidarity with you in the immense work of rebuilding which now lies ahead, and my prayers that the embargo will soon be lifted,' the pope said at the open air mass under sunny skies.
Earlier he offered 'deep compassion' for the victims of the 22-day war that Israel unleashed in Gaza in December in response to rocket fire in the Hamas-run territory, which killed 1,400 Palestinians and 13 Israelis.(Funny how all reports forget to mention that 4 of these 13 were killed by "friendly fire")
"In a world where more and more borders are being opened up ~ to trade, to travel, to movement of peoples, to cultural exchanges ~ it is tragic to see walls still being erected," Benedict said at Bethlehem's Aida refugee camp, where he spoke in a UN schoolyard with the wall and an Israeli military watchtower in the background.
"It is not something that we wanted to build. It is something that we had to build" to prevent suicide bombings and other attacks" responded Mark Regev, a spokesman for Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. "We would also hope the reality would be different."
The specificity of Benedict's comments in the West Bank contrasted with what some Israelis regarded as the bland, generic tone he used this week at the Yad Vashem Holocaust memorial in Jerusalem.
He twice called yesterday for international pressure to establish a Palestinian state, and he said he prayed for an end to the embargo on Gaza. Vatican support for a Palestinian state is not new, but the pope's comments come at a sensitive time.
Netanyahu is skeptical of Palestinian statehood, while President Obama and many other international leaders support it. Obama and Netanyahu are scheduled to meet in Washington next week.
The pope delivered his remarks as he went from a red carpet reception at Abbas's Bethlehem compound to a Mass in front of a giant Palestinian flag on the city's Manger Square and a tour of the 5,000-person refugee camp, where children performed a traditional dabke dance.
As he spoke, he delved beyond present-day issues, tracing the roots of the Israeli-Palestinian dispute to Israel's May 1948 declaration of independence and the Arab-Israeli war that followed. Palestinians refer to those events as the naqba, or catastrophe, in which tens of thousands were driven from or left their homes. Many of their descendants live as refugees in such places as Aida, marked at its entrance by a large house key symbolizing an intended return.
The quest for peace "takes on a particular poignancy as you recall the events of May 1948 and the years of conflict, as yet unresolved, that followed from those events," Benedict said at the refugee camp, where he expressed "solidarity with all the homeless Palestinians who long to be able to return to their birthplace."
Whether Palestinian refugees have a right to return to land inside Israel is one of the core issues that separate the two sides. The return of refugees from Gaza, Jordan, Lebanon, Syria and elsewhere would, Israelis contend, overwhelm the Jewish state.
Benedict "did not say 'naqba,' but he mentioned 1948, and this was good enough," Bethlehem Mayor Victor Batarseh said. "These were all really very impressive texts. We were not expecting to hear from him what we heard."
Israeli Foreign Ministry spokesman Yigal Palmor said he did not think the pope's comments were meant to question Israel's founding. But "by going back to 1948 ~ that is going down a very slippery slope," Palmor said.(The truth is never a slippery slope to be avoided at all costs!)
"That is on the verge of saying something not about Israeli policy, but on the very existence of Israel. I am sure he did not mean it that way. But it might send the wrong message." (The Israelis deny Nakhba ever existed.)
And he appealed to young people living in the Palestinian territories not to 'allow the loss of life and the destruction that you have witnessed to arouse bitterness or resentment in your hearts. Have the courage to resist any temptation you may feel to resort to acts of violence or terrorism. Instead, let what you have experienced renew your determination to build peace.'
Benedict later celebrated an open-air mass before thousands of pilgrims in Manger Square just outside the Basilica of the Nativity, which Christians believe stands over the spot where Jesus was born.
Pope Benedict XVI leads a mass in Manger Square
in the West Bank town of Bethlehem. ~ Reuters
Welcoming the pontiff, Palestinian president Mahmud Abbas slammed the 42-year Israeli occupation and the severe restrictions on movement faced by his people in their lands.
'In this holy land there are those who continue to build separation walls instead of bridges and who try to compel Muslims and Christians to leave the country,' Abbas said.
Security was beefed up to ensure the safety of the leader of the world's 1.1 billion Catholics on his first official visit to the Palestinian territories and Israel, with hundreds of law enforcement officers lining the streets.
Rabbi Yisrael Lau, a Holocaust survivor and former Israeli chief rabbi, saw in the remarks a key to wider reconciliation.
"These words are a bridge of friendship, of understanding, of peace and love between nations, religions and races," Lau told Reuters Television.
Before departing for Rome, the pope again drove home his political message, calling for peace to end Israeli occupation of the West Bank and give the Palestinians their own homeland.
He stressed this goal several times during his five-day tour, aware that Israel's new government has so far declined to endorse the "two-state solution" desired by the West.
"I wish to put on record that I came to visit this country as a friend of the Israelis, just as I am a friend of the Palestinian people," he said.
The appeal came 61 years to the day since Israel became a state, a day known as the Nakba, or disaster, by Palestinians, half of whom fled or were forced from their homes in 1948.
To both sides he urged: "No more bloodshed! No more fighting! No more terrorism! No more war!"
Israel's right to exist in security must be universally recognized, he said, and it must be acknowledged that "the Palestinian people have a right to a sovereign independent homeland, to live with dignity and to travel freely."
Peres told the pope his visit had made "a significant contribution to the new relations" between the Vatican and Israel, and his speeches "carried a substantive weight."
The Wall is considered a wonderful canvas
for the art of the people. Somehow I think
he was spared this particular bit of
absolutely charming and whimsical art!
In the final act of worship of his visit, Benedict preached a message of hope for all mankind at the Church of the Holy Sepulchre in Jerusalem's Old City, where Christians believe Jesus was crucified and rose from the dead.
"The empty tomb speaks to us of hope, the hope that does not disappoint because it is the gift of the spirit of life," he said. "Love is stronger than death."