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Palestinian Christians battle for Israel

BEIT JALA, West Bank (AP) — Palestinians in this Christian village are hoping the new pope can succeed where others have failed — pressing Israel to drop plans to build a stretch of its West Bank separation barrier through their picturesque valley.

The Vatican has called on Israel not to seize the lands, but local Palestinian Catholics want the new pontiff to lean more heavily on Israel.

“We have hope in the new pope, as he is close to the poor and the oppressed,” said the Rev. Ibrahim Shomali, the Palestinian priest who has been leading the protests.

Israel has been building the barrier since 2002 in response to a wave of suicide bombings early last decade that killed hundreds of people. Israel says the barrier is needed to keep out Palestinian attackers.

“They are crowding us inside a ghetto,” sighed Issa Khalilieh, whose family lost 12 acres (five hectares) in years of Israeli confiscations.

An Israeli defense official said Jerusalem would remain “open and vulnerable” if the section isn’t built.

He noted that during the height of violence a decade ago, militants fired at nearby Gilo from Beit Jala. The official spoke anonymously under ministry policy.

In the Beit Jala area, Israel’s Defense Ministry plans to seize some 790 acres (320 hectares) of the Cremisan Valley, said lawyer Ghaith Nasser. Israel’s Defense Ministry would not confirm how much land they intend to seize.

Since January 2012, about two dozen people have gathered in the groves every Friday to pray to save their lands. George Abu Eid, whose family’s five acres (two hectares) of olive and lemon orchards are threatened, said activists hope to build international support.

Rev. Shomali and residents said the letter wasn’t enough. They want the Vatican to either join their legal case or publically condemn Israel.

“If the church stands with us, we would have our land. Israel is scared of the church and her voice,” said Rev. Shomali.

“We have been trying to make our case and reach an agreement on what would be possible,” he said.

A senior church official confirmed discussions were underway with Israel. He spoke anonymously because he was not authorized to brief reporters.

For years, they have staged marches in villages affected by the barrier, sometimes succeeding in altering the route of the barrier.

Israeli governments have said that they intend to keep the main settlement blocs close to the old 1949 cease-fire line along the West Bank under a peace treaty, offering the Palestinians Israeli land in exchange, but negotiations have failed to produce an agreement.

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