How Pope Francis Exposed the Brutality of Israel's Apartheid Wall

The pope's prayer at the separation wall highlighted a barrier that has come to symbolize Israel’s occupation of Palestinian lands.

Pope Francis.
Photo Credit: Casa Rosada/Wikimedia Commons

All it took was a prayer to make Pope Francis’ first visit to the Middle East a memorable one.  While the pope’s motorcade was making his way through Bethlehem, he made an impromptu stop.

Pope Francis got out and walked over to the hulking slab of concrete that separates Bethlehem from Jerusalem in the occupied West Bank. He put his head against the wall. Israeli occupation soldiers watched from above. Then the cameras started snapping. The pope prayed at the wall nearby graffiti that spoke to the plight of Palestinians.  “Pope we need some 1 to speak about justice, Bethlehem look (sic) like Warsaw ghetto," words on the wall read.

It was a simple gesture, but a deeply symbolic one that came during the pope’s three day visit to the Middle East. The pope prayed at a barrier that has come to symbolize Israel’s occupation of Palestinian lands, which began in 1967 after the Six-Day War.The building of the separation barrier--which takes the form of a fence, a wall or electronic fence sensors, depending on where you are--is among the most controversial actions Israel has taken over the past decade. While Israeli authorities claim it was put up starting in 2002 to prevent suicide bombings, Palestinians point out that the separation barrier snakes its way throughout their territory. 85 percent of the separation barrier is located in the occupied West Bank, impeding freedom of movement in the Palestinian West Bank. It also goes around major illegal settlements, effectively enveloping communities built in contravention of international law into Israel proper.

The pope did not say any of this. He did not say a word about the separation barrier, in fact.  But the photo of him praying there was historic, and will be the most lasting image from his trip.  It drew attention to a separation barrier that was ruled to be illegal in 2004 by the International Court of Justice, which said its construction “severely impedes the exercise by the Palestinian people of its right to self‑determination, and is therefore a breach of Israel's obligation to respect that right”.” And despite his silence otherwise, many Palestinians were pleased by the pope’s wall prayer. “That has a lot of meaning, a lot of meaning,” Belinda Shamma, a Palestinian Christian, told TIME Magazine’s Karl Vick.  “He is trying to tell the world what is happening to Palestinians is so unfair … We are dying inside.”  

And Israeli officials understood the symbolic weight of the pope’s prayer as well. Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu tweeted that he “explained to the pope that building the security fence prevented many more victims that Palestinian terror planned to harm.”

The pope also made other historic gestures, like becoming the first pontiff to fly directly into the West Bank--instead of first stopping in Israel--and referring to the State of Palestine. “There is a need to intensify efforts and initiatives aimed at creating the conditions for a stable peace based on justice, on the recognition of rights for every individual, and on mutual security,”  the pope said.  He successfully invited Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas and Israeli President Shimon Peres to meet with him at the Vatican, though little concrete is expected to come out of that meeting.

The pope’s symbolic gestures of support for Palestinians came during a trip where he also visited with Israeli leaders and made a trip to the grave of Theodor Herzl, the founder of the political movement of Zionism, which sought to ameliorate European anti-Semitism by creating a Jewish state in Palestine, but also lead to the expulsion of hundreds of thousands of Palestinians in 1948, when Israel was created.

In addition, Pope Francis visited with Holocaust survivors in Israel and also made an impromptu stop at a memorial for victims of terrorism in Israel. Before he embarked on his jaunt to the West Bank and Israel, he stopped in Jordan, where he met with officials and gave a mass at a stadium in Amman to an audience that included Christian refugees from Syria, Iraq and Palestine.

And the pope further highlighted the Syrian crisis by meeting with some of the refugees that grinding conflict has created.  He praised Jordan for taking in at least 600,000 refugees from Syria.  “I pray once more that reason and restraint will prevail, and that with the help of the international community, Syria will rediscover the path of peace,” the pope said.

Alex Kane is former World editor at AlterNet. His work has appeared in Mondoweiss, Salon, VICE, the Los Angeles Review of Books and more. Follow him on Twitter @alexbkane.

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