JERUSALEM — Catholic leaders in the Holy Land and abroad have long opposed Israel’s rule over the West Bank and East Jerusalem — what Palestinians call “the occupation.”

But recent moves by Israel’s right-wing government to build thousands of additional homes in these territories have spurred renewed criticism from Church officials.

Desperate to appease his coalition partners after Israel’s High Court ordered the destruction of the illegal settler outpost called Amona, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu promised to build up to 5,500 new homes beyond Israel’s pre-1967 borders.

Israel, which captured the West Bank and East Jerusalem from Jordan in the 1967 Middle East war in which Arab armies tried to annihilate it, has annexed East Jerusalem. It considers the West Bank “disputed” territory whose future must be negotiated in keeping with the provisions of the 1994 Oslo Peace accord.

On Feb. 6, Israel’s parliament also voted to permit the state to seize privately owned Palestinian land on which some settlement and outpost homes have been built. Palestinian groups have already petitioned Israel’s High Court to declare the law illegal.

According to the government, the vast majority of settler homes have been built on vacant “state land,” but some homes were “unknowingly” built on plots owned by private Palestinian landowners who have since presented deeds to the property.

Two days after the law’s passage, the Latin Patriarchate issued a statement “strongly” condemning what it called “this unjust and unilateral law that allows the de facto annexation of Palestinian private lands for the benefit of Israeli settlements.”

Such a law, the patriarchate said, “undermines the two-state solution, further eliminating hopes of peace and could have serious consequences.”  

The patriarchate also expressed concern “about the future of peace and justice in the Holy Land” and called on leaders to take “decisive decisions in favor of peace, justice and dignity for all.”

Archbishop William Shomali, Latin patriarchal vicar for Jordan, told the Register that “building more settlements in Jerusalem and the expropriation law in order to legalize the illegal settlements go against the unique valid solution, which is the two-state solution. These initiatives go certainly against justice and against peace. I hope it will be abrogated by the Israeli High Court. I feel that the international community is moving and may help to reverse the decision. 


‘Occupation Demands Action’

On Jan. 14, the Coordination of Bishops’ Conferences in support of the Church in the Holy Land roundly condemned settlements in a statement entitled “50 Years of Occupation Demands Action.”

“For 50 years the West Bank, East Jerusalem and Gaza have languished under occupation, violating the human dignity of both Palestinians and Israelis. This is a scandal to which we must never become accustomed,” the statement said.

“We all have a responsibility to oppose the construction of settlements. This de facto annexation of land not only undermines the rights of Palestinians in areas such as Hebron and East Jerusalem but, as the U.N. recently recognized, also imperils the chance of peace.”

The bishops, the majority of them European, said Christians have a “responsibility” to promote a two-state solution.

“The Holy See has emphasized that if Israel and Palestine do not agree to exist side by side, reconciled and sovereign within mutually agreed and internationally recognized borders, peace will remain a distant dream and security an illusion.”

The bishops said they also have a responsibility “to encourage nonviolent resistance, which, as Pope Francis reminds us, has achieved great changes across the world. This is particularly necessary in the face of injustices such as the continued construction of the separation wall on Palestinian land, including the Cremisan Valley.”

In the United States, Bishop Oscar Cantu, chairman of the U.S. bishops’ conference’s Committee on International Justice and Peace, implored Secretary of State Rex Tillerson to help end the “crippling occupation.”

The Feb. 1 letter — which Bishop Cantu wrote following his visit to the Holy Land as a member of the Coordination of Bishops’ Conferences’ delegation — noted that the 50th anniversary of Israel’s occupation of Gaza will be marked in May.  

“Settlement expansion on occupied Palestinian lands undermines a two-state solution, destroying the homes and the livelihoods of Palestinians, as well as the long-term security and future of Israelis,” Bishop Cantu said.


The Cremisan Valley

The bishop said the route of the security barrier Israel built in the early 2000s to prevent Palestinian terrorists from entering Israel touches the Cremisan Valley, near the West Bank town of Bethlehem. Most West Bank Christians live in or around Bethlehem.

“The Cremisan Valley is home to a Salesian monastery, convent and school,” he noted, “and the agricultural lands of 58 Christian families who live in nearby Palestinian towns.” The towering wall “constricts residents’ movement, impairs access to their lands, separates Christian institutions from those they serve, and encourages Christian emigration.”

Bishop Cantu called the valley “emblematic of the alarming number of Palestinians who have lost their homes and livelihoods. Settlement expansion, confiscation of lands and the building of the Separation Wall on Palestinian lands violate international law and undermine a diplomatic solution.”

Bishop Cantu said the USCCB also asked Tillerson to maintain the U.S. Embassy in Tel Aviv, something President Donald Trump promised to do during his campaign. Since becoming president, however, Trump said he needs to study the issue more closely.

Relocating the embassy to Jerusalem “is tantamount to recognizing Jerusalem as the undivided capital of Israel,” Cantu said, emphasizing that the international community does not recognize any part of Jerusalem as part of Israel.

Pope Francis, he said, has urged that both Palestinians and Israelis preserve Jerusalem “as the capital of the three religions, as a point of reference, as a city of peace.”


Trump: Settlements Don’t Help Peace Process

Trump will meet with Netanyahu Feb. 15 in Washington, but it is not known how prominent the settlement issue will be during their meeting. Despite the expectation by Israel’s right wing that Trump will be much more sympathetic to settlement building than President Obama, he told an Israeli newspaper this month that settlements “don’t help the [peace] process.”

Many Israelis agree. In a February opinion poll called the “Peace Index,” a monthly survey of Israeli opinion conducted by the Israel Democracy Institute and Tel Aviv University, 50% of respondents said they opposed settlement expansion.


Michele Cabin is the Register’s Middle East correspondent.